India – Australia relations: A relationship of mutual interest and prosperity

The vast Indo-Pacific region is greatly contested today. The powerful Chinese state is agitating in it in unprecedented ways. The other major powers in the region must form a strong alliance to resist the Chinese assault and to protect their mutual interests. This article considers the situation from the particular position of India and Australia’s relationship.

On the part of China, its aggression is mostly a policy of distraction. In apparently seeking greater prosperity for the nation beyond its borders, China seeks to detract attention from its domestic and international struggles. These struggles are well documented worldwide. It has suffered huge protests for its attempts to undermine the democratic structure of Hong Kong. It faces the ongoing, controversial questions of Taiwan and Tibet’s autonomy. It must address its ongoing economic issues with its major trading partners. It is also dealing with serious criticism from world leaders about President Xi Jinping’s globalist ambitions. A final example is the internal problem of the Xinjiang Uygur region.

The agitations of China in the Indo-Pacific are essentially assertions of territorial rights. It claims the right to huge territories near the South and East China Sea. Such a move has seriously antagonized Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia. China also claims the right to small artificial reefs in the region, which would severely threaten freedom of navigation. Moreover, it is confronting India over territory in the Himalayas and engaging in trade disputes with Australia.

All of these aggressive moves have forced the other major powers in the region to reassess their own position and objectives. Australia, in particular, has changed its tact considerably. A decade ago, Australia practiced a strategy of restraint in dealing with China. They maintained a distant policy line on Indo-Pacific issues. Canberra did not have any outstanding policy issues with Beijing. In any case, they pointed out that – in geographical terms – they do not share a border with China. For this reason, the Quadrilateral dialogue initiated by the former U.S. President George W. Bush administration at that time did not take off as expected.

However, the huge changes in global politics since then have significantly shifted the balance of power towards the East. In order to defend its influence and trading prosperity, Australia has been forced into changing its foreign policy and working with other like-minded partners in the region. The recent security pact between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS) best demonstrates this change in policy. Also, since 2009, India and Australia had enjoyed a simple bilateral strategic partnership. On June 4, 2020, however, at the India and Australia Leaders’ Virtual Summit, this was upgraded to the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”.

At the moment India and Australia are also strengthening their trading relationship with the Economic Strategy Vision to 2035. This economic strategy is a milestone in their relationship. Many international relations scholars describe this move as an especially befitting strategy to counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. It is not merely a containment strategy, but a proactive, strategic response to China. It aims to dominate power and trade in the Indo-Pacific.

For Australia, this trading relationship diversifies its income. Its main priority is to take from China a substantial amount of the export market in India, by promoting India as one of its top three export markets for Australian goods. The move also demonstrates its political muscle. One of the main reasons for the deterioration in Chinese-Australian trade concerned the question of Chinese tariffs. Australia recently became irritated by the stiff tariffs imposed by the Chinese on Australian barley and wine. Therefore, the alliance with India provided an opportunity to meet out political retaliation on China.

For India, the trading relationship reduces a troublesome, economic dependence upon China. India is heavily reliant upon Chinese exports. According to the UN database, China’s exports to India for the year 2020 amounted to 66.7 billion US dollars. It is becoming increasingly difficult for New Delhi to justify this extreme dependence upon China for essential goods, whilst the border issue persists. The Opposition parties in India have been taking advantage of this embarrassing position with heavy criticism.

As for the prospective trading relationship itself, there are still many intricate difficulties to be resolved. The 2035 document contains excellent, detailed analysis across the sectors.  However, it remains to be seen whether this shall lead to deeper consultation and practical resolutions. To succeed in this challenging process, both countries should meticulously examine the various aspects of the issues pertaining to the Vision for 2035. Without proper preparation and decision making, the various proposals concerning the Vision shall remain but mere ideas upon the shelf.

Thus, at a time in which the Indo-Pacific region is gaining more recognition in the international power system, the battle for power and wealth in the region is intensifying. China, mostly to hide its own insecurities, is taking significant steps to enhance its already strong position. The Chinese expansion threatens territorial rights and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region. This, in turn, undermines the significance and authority of international law.

However, the Chinese aggression is providentially good for the other states in the region. Under attack, these states must unite to defend their common interests and strengthen their positions. In this regard, the Indo-Australian Economic Strategy for 2035 is unsurprising. Only the passage of time and the practical resolutions of India and Australia shall prove whether the Economic Strategy shall be fruitful.

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.”