War in Ukraine provides opportunities for deepening Australia–India defence cooperation
25 Mar 2022|

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison held the second India–Australia virtual summit. At the meeting, the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the India–Australia comprehensive strategic partnership and welcomed the considerable progress made in strengthening political, economic, security, technology, cyber and defence cooperation.

In the defence realm, the leaders agreed to pursue opportunities for further cooperation in areas including military-to-military relationships, maritime information sharing and domain awareness, and underscored the importance of reciprocal access arrangements.

While encouraging progress is being made, much more could be done to facilitate deeper operational defence cooperation.

India and Australia have tightened their strategic relationship over the past two decades, with their watershed 2009 joint declaration on security cooperation becoming a comprehensive strategic partnership in June 2020. The two countries now have regular 2+2 foreign and defence minister meetings and close cooperation between their militaries, and also meet in conjunction with Japan and the United States through the Quad.

The context of international relationships is being looked at in a new light after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now entering its fifth week and with Russian forces making slow progress, a supposedly swift invasion has the possibility of becoming a prolonged urban war. A host of countries from Europe, along with the US, Japan, Australia and others, have imposed a suite of harsh economic sanctions on the Russian state and its oligarchs. Most of the international community has voted to condemn Russia’s actions through the United Nations Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council.

A small group of countries continue to support Russia, some of which have chosen to abstain on the UN votes and declined to concede that Russia ‘invaded’ Ukraine. Among those countries is India, which has faced some backlash, particularly from Western commentators, for not criticising Russia’s actions.

Moscow has been a time-tested partner for New Delhi across many decades, with close military and strategic ties and an enduring economic and diplomatic relationship. As many Indian commentators and foreign policy experts have pointed out, India’s position on Russia should come as no surprise because of their shared history from soon after Indian independence and India’s heavy reliance on Russian military equipment.

Despite its increasingly close strategic ties with the US and some of its allies since the turn of the century, India has also long espoused a strategy of non-alignment, or what has come to be known as multi-alignment. To be sure, Western governments have been careful not to overly criticise New Delhi. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US shares important interests and values with India and noted that ‘India has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we have with Russia. Of course, that is okay.’

Unsurprisingly, a hastily convened virtual Quad meeting following the Ukraine invasion didn’t elicit any change of approach from the Indian government. In fact, the meeting only served to distract from the Quad’s core focus on the Indo-Pacific.

One area in the relationship with Moscow that is now giving New Delhi some food for thought is its overreliance on Russian military equipment. The issue is two-fold, encompassing India’s dependence on Russian supply chains and the vulnerabilities of some Russian military equipment that are now being exposed by Ukrainian and Western countermeasures. Just as troubling are the roles Russian equipment and know-how play in India’s ‘Make in India’ military indigenisation process. These factors will become more pronounced the longer Russian forces get bogged down in a protracted and costly conflict in Ukraine.

While many view India’s close relationship with Russia and its unwillingness to criticise Moscow as negatives, this moment in international relations offers some opportunities as well as challenges for India’s emerging security and defence partners.

With this in mind, there are some immediate prospects for enhancing the Australia–India defence relationship by advancing the level of cooperation in two main areas, both outlined in the 2020 strategic partnership agreement. These opportunities are also in line with Australia’s main ally the United States and the triumvirate of defence agreements contained in India–US defence trade cooperation.

The first is defence commerce and technologies. Under the 2020 agreement, the defence science and technology implementing arrangement facilitates interaction between defence research organisations in Australia and India. In the past, India has shown interest in Australian defence products, including armoured vehicles, naval training simulators, mobile medical facilities and water purification.

The implementing arrangement could be expanded to include collaboration between the partners’ government scientific agencies, industry and universities on applied sciences, with a particular focus on the military sphere. Sectors of interest include defence electronics, autonomous systems, space, hypersonics and underwater systems. Both countries are keen to improve their level of defence commerce and technology cooperation, and there is considerable scope for a deeper level of collaboration.

Second, the Australia–India mutual logistics support arrangement provides enormous capacity for closer military ties, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. It will augment military interoperability and enable more complex military-to-military engagement, with the opportunity to also improve regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In 2020, then-defence minister Linda Reynolds said the arrangement ‘paves the way for greater cross-service military activity, building on the success of our most complex exercise to date, AUSINDEX 2019, which focused on anti-submarine warfare’.

Importantly, the logistics arrangement enables the Australian and Indian militaries to resupply each other, which has the potential to extend the regional operational scopes of both countries. The Australian and Indian navies used it to conduct a replenishment at sea for just the first time only recently. Its use could increase in bilateral and multilateral exercises such as AUSINDEX and the annual Malabar exercises held between the Quad countries.

With agreements for defence industry and logistics now in play, Australia and India could also pursue a security communications agreement in line with what the US and India have done since its 2016 designation as a US major defence partner.

International turmoil creates as many opportunities as it does risks. Now is the time for New Delhi and Canberra to build on their comprehensive strategic partnership by diversifying and deepening their defence relationship, albeit in a relatively small way for New Delhi, thus providing further impetus to broaden the bilateral relationship and maintain stability in the region.