Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart engaged in a virtual summit on 4th June 2020. The summit led to a comprehensive strategic partnership and upgraded Indo-Australian 2+2 foreign affairs and defence dialogue to the ministerial level.
Among two declarations and seven signed agreements is the Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Some of the highlights of this discussion are – the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, maintaining order in the Indo-Pacific region with an extended combating approach towards smuggling, arms trafficking and climate change, support to PM Modi’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, and deepening navy-to-navy engagement.
India and Australia have emerged as close partners in the Indo-Pacific region. They signed the Joint Declaration on Security and Cooperation in 2008, established a 2 + 2 dialogue, and launched the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (Quad) in 2017. They also conducted the bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX in the Bay of Bengal in 2019.
China has installed underwater drones in the Indian Ocean and conducted in-depth water surveys in the Pacific Ocean, raising alarms in both India and Australia. India is surrounded by countries such as Pakistan and Nepal who are supporters of China’s expansionist policies and needs allies in its growing struggle with China; in this context, New Delhi’s defence pact with Canberra is the need of the hour
The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement will allow and assist joint Indo-Australian access to military logistics facilities. Recognizing the crucial role India’s and Australia’s islands can play in countering a belligerent China, the agreement enables both navies to use India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Australia’s Cocos (Kelling) Islands for defence logistics cooperation.
The strategic value of both these islands is high as they are located at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The Strait of Malacca is near to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, while the Sunda, Lombok and Ombai – Wetar Straits are close to Cocos Islands. Access to these straits is vital because they act as entry and exit points between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and connect the disputed region of the South China Sea currently dominated by China. The agreement formulates an advantageous position for India and Australia.
This pact is an opportunity for India to engineer an inner transformation in its maritime policy and bring about a dimensional shift in the Indo-Pacific region. The agreement establishes greater possibilities of exploring the Indo-Pacific. The partnership between New Delhi and Canberra will act as resistance to Beijing’s demonstration of power in the South China Sea as it seeks to pursue its shift and switch strategy to control the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits.
India and Australia will be able to grow their awareness in the maritime domain through access to each other’s islands, increased surveillance, access to each other’s maritime routes and securing sea lanes of communication. Both countries will be able to overcome logistical administrative challenges which will help them carry out more complex and sustained missions in the future.
The agreement will allow both countries to expand the ambit and membership of the existing naval exercises and groups in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) such as the Quad, Malabar and AUSINDEX. ASEAN countries will gain more strategic importance as the agreement can impact the area around the crucial straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok. India and Australia will need to establish regular engagements with ASEAN countries, especially Indonesia due to its strategic location. PM Modi’s proposal to launch a maritime security pillar at the East Asia Maritime Security workshop co-hosted by India, Australia, and Indonesia in February 2020 is a step in the right direction.
This will further develop India’s existing engagement with ASEAN countries. Singapore’s logistic agreement with India, as well as its permission to Indian naval vessels to access Changi port can strengthen India’s presence at the Malacca strait and South China Sea. Access to Australian naval base on Malaysia’s Butterworth island will enable India to further develop engagement with Malaysia and improve its trade and defence in the region.
India can formulate its own multiple strategic maritime triangles. One combination could be of Australia’s Cocos islands, Singapore’s Changi naval base and its own Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Another combination can be Andaman & Nicobar islands, Cocos islands and La Reunion islands as France and India too have a cordial relationship in the maritime domain which comprises of joint naval exercises and patrols in the Indian Ocean region.
The success of this agreement depends on an inclusive approach. It is a necessary course of action to tackle Chinese presence in the vast and complex Indo-Pacific region. Support from allies and friendly countries will help New Delhi balance Chinese hegemony in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. India can build a multilateral mechanism in the maritime domain to address increasing island disputes, terrorism, and piracy threats in the Indo-Pacific region.
Through this agreement, India has a very real chance to give its SAGAR vision a boost and an appropriate platform. China’s globally deteriorating image poses India with an opportunity to re-emerge as a robust political entity in the Indo-Pacific region. The maritime domain can be a source of growth and development for India, as it plays a crucial role in the Indo-Pacific region with the vision of shared values and cooperation.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.