The year 2013 is witnessing a flurry of diplomatic activities with heads of state, defence and foreign ministers and defence officials making visits to state capitals across Asia and the Pacific. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan and Thailand in late May was preceded by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India the same month, which was again preceded by Salman Khurshid’s visit to Beijing. While President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a summit meeting at California, Defence Minister A.K. Antony made a three-day tour to Singapore, Thailand and Australia in early June by deferring his planned visit to Beijing on 19 May to a later date.
What are the factors that triggered such diplomatic activism from the Indian side and what are the results/gains that India has achieved from these engagements? Some of the visits may be routine but the question is why now? True, Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan was originally scheduled in November last year but was cancelled at the last moment as Japan went to polls in December, but why Antony’s Beijing sojourn has been postponed? Is it because of clash of dates or something else?
One reason for postponement of Antony’s Beijing visit could be the sensitive nature of bilateral ties and fragile military relations accentuated by the recent border stand-off in Ladakh and thus allowing some cooling off period. But the fact that Antony made his first maiden visit to Australia by an Indian Defence Minister where the focus was primarily on deepening strategic relations and expanding military ties, both of which were high on the agenda. The significance of the timing of Antony’s visit cannot be missed.
Antony kicked off his three nation tour with Singapore as the first destination. While in Singapore, Antony met his counterpart Ng Eng Hen. India and Singapore have an agreement under which Singapore armed forces train their fighter pilots as well as infantry and armoured troops on Indian soil. The visit further enhances bilateral ties. Despite setbacks in bilateral ties with the banning of defence giant Singapore Technologies on corruption charges, military relations between the two nations are strong with not just joint training of troops but also sharing of information and intelligence on matters of mutual interest. Antony’s Singapore visit came a day after the high profile Shangri La dialogue on regional security concluded. While the minister had gone for the dialogue in 2013 that had been electrified after the US announcement of a shift of military forces to the Asia region, this time around Navy Chief Admiral D K Joshi represented India. The strategic community keeps a close watch on the dialogue, given recent maritime and land border incidents in the region that involved China.
In Thailand, Antony met his counterpart Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat and called on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The visit gained significance as it came days after the tour of Singh and the Thai government expressing interest in collaborating with the Indian defence industry. While they have done it in the past, the two sides also discussed the possibility of enhancing joint patrolling of the common maritime boundary between the two nations. India is now in a stronger position to carry out patrols in the region with new assets being based in Nicobar, including a new naval air station that will significantly increase surveillance and intervention capabilities.
While in Australia, Antony and his counterpart Stephen Smith agreed to continue and enhance bilateral defence consultations and cooperation, besides discussing issues concerning the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions in bilateral and multilateral fora. Antony and Smith met in Perth on 4 June and again in Canberra on 5 June, where a joint statement was issued in which they reviewed progress of strategic and security interests, including maritime security and bilateral defence cooperation.
The question arises is: why is Australia keen on cooperating with India on the issue of maritime security? Being a resource exporting country of huge amount of raw materials and other resources to key markets such as Japan and China, Australia wants to secure safe transport of its goods and acknowledges the role of Indian navy to protect critical sea lanes from piracy and maritime terrorism and therefore cooperating with India is hugely to its interests. China’s belligerent posture and assertiveness in recent times on regional territorial issues where more than one country have competing claims contains the potentials for disrupting maritime commerce.
Even India’s economic engagement with Australia is ballooning. Australian resources are too important to the booming Indian economy and therefore the two economies are complementary, which is deepening in recent times. Therefore, Antony and Smith duly acknowledged to deepen strategic and defence cooperation between the two countries as that would contribute to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and promote cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
In the joint statement, the two ministers took note of the progress made in defence cooperation, in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation concluded in 2006, the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation issued during the visit of the Australian Prime Minister to India in 2009 and the Joint Statement issued during Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to India in 2012.
The joint statement came amidst flexing of muscles by China in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
China has in the recent past used its naval ships and aircraft to intimidate neighbouring countries including Japan which are in dispute with Beijing over maritime rights. China has also increased presence of its maritime forces, including submarines and warships, in the Indian Ocean Region. “The Defence Ministers acknowledged deepening strategic and defence cooperation between Australia and India. They agreed to continue to contribute to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and to promote cooperation in the Indian Ocean region,” the statement said.
Antony’s visit came days after Australian government released a Defence White Paper recently which noted that, “India is emerging as an important strategic, diplomatic and economic actor, ‘looking east,’ and becoming more engaged in regional frameworks.” The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper outlines the profound strategic changes occurring as economic, strategic and military weight shift to the Indo-Pacific region. “India and Australia have a shared interest in helping to address these strategic changes, including through defence collaboration,” Smith said.
Both Antony and Smith agreed that interactions between the defence establishments of both sides in a variety of fields and at various levels have been mutually beneficial. Both also expressed satisfaction with the bilateral architecture established for pursuing defence cooperation and that consultations have helped in deepening mutual trust and understanding between the defence establishments. The growing cooperation between the navies of both countries is a crucial element in bilateral defence cooperation. Australia is to host the International Fleet Review in Sydney in October 2013 and Indian naval ships will participate.
The last major multilateral naval exercise that India had taken part in included Singapore and Australia. The 2007 edition of the Malabar series of naval exercises, which were close to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, also included Japan and the US. Thailand came into focus after Singh’s visit and interest from the growing Asian nation for military cooperation and procurement of defence equipment. While the Defence Ministry consistently ruled out taking part in multilateral naval exercises after the 2007 Malabar exercises that prompted a sharp Chinese reaction, Antony received requests for renewing such interactions during his tour, given the increasing military aggressiveness that Beijing has adopted in recent months. Even with Japan, India had the first joint naval exercise in June 2012 and during Singh’s May visit, it was agreed to hold again later this year. The Joint Statement even mentioned that the frequency of joint exercises will be increased.
As maritime nations, both acknowledge that maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with principles of international law is critical for the growth and prosperity of the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Consultations and cooperation on issues concerning the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions both bilaterally and multilaterally, including through the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) are key elements to work for peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.
Both the countries are already cooperating through the IONS, which Australia will Chair next year, along with hosting the IONS Conclave of Chiefs in Perth in March 2014, and the IOR-ARC of which India is currently Chair and Australia the next Chair. Both Antony and Smith recalled the contributions made by the Indian and ANZAC forces during the Gallipoli campaign and agreed to commemorate their contributions by launching a publication during the Gallipoli Centenary celebrations in 2015.
India needs to be watchful and assess carefully Australia’s China policy before crafting its own policy Down Under. The issue of uranium exports to India threatened to derail Indo-Australian ties when Australia decided to ban exports to India. Along with the issue of attacks on Indian students, Australia took measures to address both these issues. At a time when China’s postures in the seas have caused concerns, Australian Prime Minister Gillard decided to travel to Beijing in April 2013 in clear demonstration to build broad trade, investment and political ties with China with the cover of sorting out differences on security issues. Australia seems to be worried that there is a trust deficit between the two countries, which might adversely affect its economic relations with China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner; Australia’s iron ore exports alone, at something like $43 billion a year, dwarfs most of the world’s bilateral aggregate trade relationships. How Gillard crafts her China policy that seems to be at variance with other Indo-Pacific nations needs to be watched carefully.