India’s relations with Australia to balance China in the Indo-Pacific Region

The 21st century Indo-Pacific region would be expected to play out for geopolitical power struggle by the major powers. The post-cold war realignment and the Chinese economic miracle had pulled the world order towards East Asia. In these circumstances the China’s said peaceful rise and emerging India’s aspiration for global power status – cause the Indo-Pacific region to be a more vibrant one.

At the moment more than 65 per cent of the global trade which passes through the Indo-Pacific region has required the freedom of navigation and security. However, the increasing China’s assertiveness to demonstrate her military muscle in the region especially in the South and East China Sea threatens the neighbouring nations and the freedom of maritime security. Since Australia has no border connection with China, it has not experiencing any direct threat. However, Australia perceived the South China Sea episode as a challenge. For Australia this issue may not be confront to its security but perceived as a future irritation. India shared border with China and had bad experience in the 1962 Indo-China war. The negotiations to resolve the border dispute are under way but not yet find any solutions. Moreover, the China’s nascent encirclement strategy of “strings of pearls” in the Indian Ocean would be a much concern for India’s security. In this light, India should be in a position for global power aspiration in the presence of China. In this angle India’s nurturing relations with Australia become more attention.

Dr David Brewste described India and Australia are the strange couple of the Indo-Pacific region. India’s Non-alignment strategy during the Cold War which instigate vacuum on its relations with Australia was part of the Western allay. However, the climate of the relationship between them has changed fundamentally followed by the visit of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. Further, the post-cold war realignment and the rise of China impacted on the Indo-Pacific region nurture these countries getting closer. Instead democratic and institutionalised mechanism has followed in both India and Australia – so far their ties demonstrated as cordial but somewhat distance.

However, the high level visits on both sides had started from 2008 materialised more changes in the relationship of India and Australia. The 2009 witnessed a dip in their relationship due to the racial attack on Indian students in Australia got more attention in their bilateral relationship. The bilateral trade was about $14 billion in 2014. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) is under negotiation. Though the deadline to complete the FTA negotiations have set by both the countries prime ministers as December 2015 was not materialised, however, voices from both sides have reassured that this would be sort it out with in few months. However, issues related to market access for the Indian goods and more access to Australian agricultural products to the Indian market which really hindered in materialising the FTA.

The tilt by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott administration risking its leadership to make a policy shift for selling uranium to India would be seen as Canberra’s perceived interest of India’s strategic importance for Australia in the Indo-Pacific region in maintaining peace and stability. This tilt of Australia was not demonstrated easily. It was actually mooted by the Indo-US nuclear deal during 2008 initially followed by Canada.

Enhancing partnership between a major power aspirant like India and a middle power Australia would have stringent differences on several fronts. This follows the impediment of Australia’s hesitation in acknowledging India’s great power status. Further, Australia’s reluctance in accepting ‘Indian Ocean is India’s Ocean’ would be meticulously observed by the Indian elite. If Australia fails to demonstrate India’s legitimacy over the Indian Ocean as a stakeholder for providing security would not fortify India-Australia relations. New Delhi also has doubts on Australia’s independent foreign policy. The New Delhi has the perception of Canberra would not articulate any foreign policy or security issues without the consensus of the US in the Indo-Pacific region.

India and Australia having bilateral ties with China but caution in respond to its assertiveness in the South China Sea; however, having strategic partnership with the US. The quadrilateral talks together with India, US, Australia and Japan in 2007 did not take off considering the Chinese protested discussion. The more India and Australia diverge in making the balance of power in the region would be a great leverage for China. India and Australia have the largest navies in the Asia-Pacific and exercising democracy. This increases the expectation from the neighbouring countries for their response for maritime security in the region. If India and Australia perceive this then they should discharge their responsibility for the just cause of the Asia-Pacific. Further, both countries have consensus on China’s assertiveness, clean energy, defeating domestic-global terrorism, concerned about the ISIS and expanding their trade. Thus India and Australia have more convergence than divergence.

Hence, the Asia-Pacific becomes strategic importance to balance China requirements response from the Asia-Pacific nations – particularly from the major stakeholders of India and Australia. Since, Australia identifies India is its new strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific, to reach this goal they should up-grade their bilateral relationship into a strong strategic partnership. This would be the suitable answer to enhance their cooperation on the region in responding China.

Antony Vigilious Clement
Antony Vigilious Clement
Antony Clement is a Senior Editor (Indo-Pacific), Modern Diplomacy, an online journal. He is a researcher in Indian Foreign Policy. He is currently working on two books - “The Best Teacher” and “Diplomacy in Tough Times”. His research centres on India’s diplomacy & foreign policy and extends to domestic politics, economic policy, security issues, and international security matters, including India’s relations with the US, the BRICS nations, the EU and Australia. His recent book is “Discover your talents.”