Australia needs to streamline its India defence strategy
22 Jun 2022|

Defence Minister Richard Marles is the first senior member of Australia’s new Labor government to visit India. His four-day visit began on Monday and includes meetings with India’s defence and foreign ministers.

Australia and India have come a long way since former PM Kevin Rudd was accused of abandoning the Quad in favour of Beijing in 2008. Both now face a markedly different regional environment dominated by China’s belligerent actions.

The new government has made it clear that India remains a priority partner for Australia.

The significant growth in the Australia–India relationship over the past five years is a foreign-policy success story. Australia and India have gone from having a limited relationship to brokering an interim trade deal, holding two bilateral leaders’ summits and becoming partners in the Quad and the Malabar naval exercise.

Hot off his visit to Japan, Marles will meet his Indian counterpart in Delhi, signalling that India’s importance is on par with that of Australia’s traditional partners.

The bilateral relationship now spans cooperation in critical technology, cybersecurity, critical minerals, maritime security, space, trade and education. Two new centres are in the works—one for India–Australia relations, to be established in Australia, and one for critical technology, in India’s tech hub Bengaluru. Bengaluru will also be home to a new Australian consulate.

Defence and security cooperation were key components of the comprehensive strategic partnership signed by India and Australia in June 2020. It included a joint vision on maritime security, a defence science and technology research initiative and a significant defence logistics agreement. This defence and security focus has been overshadowed by newer initiatives like the aforementioned Centre for Australia–India Relations, aimed at developing cultural and business links.

Cultural and business cooperation is vital, but the reality is that the shared security concern over China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific was the driver behind the overall growth in the bilateral relationship since 2019. It is what continues to sustain it, despite differences such as India’s approach to Russia. Tens of thousands of Indian troops continue to face off the Chinese army in the Himalayas while Beijing continues making inroads into the Pacific.

Despite the joint concerns over China’s belligerence being the key driver in the relationship, there hasn’t been clear enough progress on defence and security, which, in real terms, still lag behind the economic and political relationship.

Marles should contextualise his visit to New Delhi through the lens of this recent history.

He has said that developing the defence and security bilateral partnership with India is a ‘huge priority’ for his government. Australia has recognised the urgency in developing defence and critical technological capabilities in its AUKUS and Quad partnerships. But if the Quad needs a harder security edge, so does the India–Australia partnership. And alignment in relation to concerns about Chinese technologies such as 5G shows there is plenty of room for security cooperation.

Marles has the opportunity to streamline and recalibrate Australia’s India defence strategy.

The first step would be to once again make defence and security a central pillar of the relationship. This can be done through developing a bilateral defence strategy document with clearly defined and implementable goals. The strategy should prioritise accelerating defence science and technology research cooperation, developing a shared understanding of possible contingencies in the Indo-Pacific and defining steps to increase interoperability and institutional familiarity. Here, the India–Australia economic relationship provides a good model with a long-term engagement strategy and clearly outlined goals that allow ministers to drive the bilateral agenda.

Second, Australia and India have to cement habits of cooperation in defence as our region becomes more dangerous. Increased complexity in the bilateral AUSINDEX maritime exercise and the recent joint maritime surveillance initiative in the Indian Ocean region are steps in the right direction. But we also need to plan for scenarios, such as Indian and Australian aircraft on joint deployments encountering aggressive actions by third states.

Third, Australia needs to increase efforts to meet India’s defence needs. Australia doesn’t have the capacity to provide large and complex defence systems to India like the United States does, but we can offer small and targeted solutions including drones and health stations. These could be deployed at the active India–China border where escalation cannot be ruled out.

Finally, Australia and India should explore ways to jointly deliver soft-security solutions for the Indian and Pacific Ocean island states. Both Canberra and New Delhi have experience in delivering security training and capacity building in their immediate neighbourhood. Joint efforts could range from delivery of smaller radar systems to training in search-and-rescue operations.

Of course, Australia should focus on a diverse engagement agenda with India. An expansive bilateral agenda that encompasses non-security areas is important. But it should not overtake the core security concern.

There will be those who argue that the bilateral relationship should prioritise cultural and economic links. However, a partnership rooted in security will provide a foundation to enable increased cultural and economic collaboration for the long term.

What we need is a clear plan that prioritises a shared understanding of the complex environment we now face and consolidates our defence engagement to address it.