The aggressive China policy, growing PLA Navy presence from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean have led to a greater understanding and formation of Quad among the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, proclaiming their commitment to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision.
Longstanding India–China boundary dispute, has resulted in the 1962 border war and military stand-offs more recently in 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2020. Second is the persistent concerns about Chinese influence in India’s neighbourhood, including in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Under the guise of the Belt and Road Initiative, the investment of greater Chinese economic resources in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal as well as military resources in Pakistan and Bangladesh, has fuelled Indian unease, as has the development of a permanent Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.
Australian concerns have grown over a series of developments, including Chinese investment in critical infrastructure (which influenced government decisions on nascent 5G telecommunications), serious allegations of Chinese influence in Australian politics, and Chinese military activity in Australia’s near neighbourhood (including cyberattacks such as that on Australia’s Parliament).
COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant shocks to their economy and need for military modernization amid China’s threats are driving close military and technological partnership between India and Australia. This partnership is also an important step towards the balance of power in the region amid the growing asymmetry created by the rapid pace of development of Aircraft carriers, warships and submarines by China.
Add to this the facts that India and Australia are the largest maritime powers among the Indian Ocean’s littoral states, that they represent sizeable G20 economies, and that both are democracies with favourable demographic futures, and the importance of their strategic relationship appears even more pronounced.
Since 2000, the two countries have significantly improved their strategic coordination, military interoperability, and maritime cooperation, motivated by China’s rise and behaviour, faltering regional security institutions, and uncertainty about the United States’ role. An India–Australia defence framework agreement — a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation — was signed in March 2006 during John Howard’s visit to India, amid a host of other agreements related to economics, trade, and technology. This placed a focus on terrorism, defence cooperation, information sharing, and extradition. As a consequence, the next two years saw a sudden acceleration in bilateral defence engagement. Australia’s Minister for Defence Brendan Nelson visited India in July 2007, sandwiched between visits by Australia’s Chief of the Defence Force and Chief of Navy, during which he signed an agreement on the protection of classified information.
During 2007, two parallel developments occurred that became linked in the public consciousness: the year’s second Malabar naval exercise (Malabar 07–02), in which the US, Indian, Australian, Japanese, and Singaporean navies participated in the Bay of Bengal, as well as the first Quad meeting involving the foreign ministries of India, Australia, the United States, and Japan in Manila.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to India in November 2009 produced a further breakthrough in defence relations. During his visit, the two countries agreed to a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. They elevated the relationship rhetorically to a ‘strategic partnership’. Defence Minister Stephen Smith visited India in December 2011, and that year also saw official bilateral dialogues on energy security, counter-terrorism, and for the first time, on East Asia and the Pacific.
The 2016 Defence White Paper recognised India’s military modernisation and growing regional and global role, but also cited India–Pakistan tensions (“fuelled by terrorist activities”) as potentially affecting Australian security. It also identified the Indian Ocean as a primary zone of cooperation. The 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper placed Indo–Pacific and democratic cooperation at the centre of its broader regional engagement strategy and described India in the “front rank” of Australia’s international partnerships.
The years between 2014 and 2017 also saw a significant turn on nuclear non-proliferation issues, which had long been a sore point in relations. After three rounds of negotiations in mid- 2014, a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement was concluded during Tony Abbott’s September 2014 visit to India. Further discussions took place in November on the implementation of a uranium sale agreement to India, and by November 2015 the civil nuclear agreement had entered into force.
The most recent major developments occurred following the 2019 re-elections of Scott Morrison and Narendra Modi, and their meeting at the G20 Summit in Osaka. After several postponements due to the global coronavirus pandemic, their virtual summit was held in June 2020 at which they announced a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries. They concluded a framework agreement on maritime cooperation and on cyber technology cooperation. Most significantly on security matters, the two leaders announced the conclusion of a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), as well as an initial agreement on defence science and technology research. The two sides also agreed to upgrade their 2+2 dialogue to the rank of foreign and defence ministers, a level of official engagement that they have with only a few other countries, including the United States and Japan.
Today, India–Australia security relations comprise regular military exercises, professional exchanges, operational coordination, and nascent defence technology cooperation.
The Australia–India defence relationship now encompasses almost every major area of military partnership, namely (i) strategic dialogues, coordination, and intelligence exchanges, including those involving third countries; (ii) military exercises involving ground, air, and especially maritime forces that reflect a growing degree of interoperability; (iii) military-to-military exchanges and training; and (iv) defence commerce and technological cooperation.
Air force and naval cooperation also accelerated with Indian observers at the 2016 Pitch Black exercise, Indian naval observers at the Kakadu 2016 exercise, and India signing a White Shipping Agreement with Australia to improve information sharing for maritime domain awareness (along with similar agreements with France, Singapore, and the United States).
While AUSINDEX remains the mainstay of naval engagement, other efforts have been complementary. The Royal Australian Navy has been a regular participant (initially as an observer) in the Milan exercises since the early 2000s, including in the 2018 edition off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 2018, for the first time, the Indian Navy took part in Australia’s multilateral Kakadu exercise in Darwin. And the same year, India took part as an observer in a submarine rescue exercise Black Carillon off Western Australia.
A major threshold was crossed with the Indian Air Force’s first involvement as a full participant (rather than an observer) in the Pitch Black exercise in Darwin in 2018. A multilateral exercise involving air forces from several Australian ally and partner countries, India deployed four Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters, a C-17 heavy transport, and a C-130 tactical transport aircraft. The exercise was additionally significant for staging the first mid-air refuelling of an Indian combat aircraft (Su-30MKI) by an Australian aircraft (KC-30A), revealing a much greater degree of coordination than had been demonstrated previously.
In 2017 and 2018, the second and third editions of AUSTRA HIND, a Special Forces exercise, were held. Additionally, efforts at countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) involving the two armies was jointly organised in India in 2018. The possibility of desert warfare exercises, as well as Indian participation in a longstanding Australian jungle warfare school, have also been proposed.
The two militaries also benefit from a growing number of shared platforms, increasing the opportunities for joint training and interoperability. These include C-17 strategic transport aircraft, C-130 tactical aircraft, P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. Australian armed services have also provided classified briefings to the Indian military of potential future platforms, such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.
Future priorities should include institutionalising bilateral and multilateral coordination mechanisms, improving military interoperability, deepening defence technology collaboration, and broadening relations to give ballast to the security relationship.
At the same time, India and Australia also continue to share cyber security threat assessments as well as information on legislation and national cyber strategies. The Scott Morrison government had entered into a landmark, cooperative arrangement with India on cyber affairs and critical technology during the Leaders’ Virtual Summit between the two Prime Ministers, in 2020. The four-year $12.7 million partnership aimed at creating a research and development fund for Indian and Australian businesses and researchers, and support other countries to improve their cyber resilience.
In June 2021, the first meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on Cyber Security Cooperation between India and Australia, both countries noted the need to strengthen security of critical information infrastructure as well as 5G technology and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
The JWG on Cyber Security Cooperation is a mechanism established under the Framework Arrangement on the Cyber and Cyber-enabled Critical Technology Cooperation between India and government of Australia to implement the 2020-25 Plan of Action. It brings together policy makers and working level experts in the area to strengthen bilateral cooperation.
New Delhi and Canberra are gradually working towards enhancing their partnership with the private sector and academia to work together in skill and knowledge development besides strengthening cooperation in the multilateral fora. Both countries, with their technical expertise and engaged user base, are key players in the global development of critical and emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), next generation telecommunications (5G/6G), Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, synthetic biology, blockchain and big data.
The collaboration on defence science and technology occurred when the head of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation visited Australia in April 2016. A Joint Working Group on Defence Research and Materiel Cooperation meeting between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) met in 2018. Among other issues, India has expressed interest in certain Australian defence products, including the Bushmaster and Hawkei armoured mobility vehicles, maritime training simulators, mobile health stations, and water purifiers. Australia also has considerable expertise in radar and undersea technologies. The acquisition of diesel submarines from France by both India and Australia offers some opportunities for long-term technical collaboration between the three countries in that domain.
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