By Rajaram Panda
The Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s three-day visit to India from December 7, 2011 demonstrates Australia’s desire to deepen strategic engagement with India. The visit came soon after Australia lifted decades-old ban on the export of uranium to India. Smith’s visit was the first by an Australian cabinet minister to India since the lifting of the ban, a major irritant in the bilateral relations.
During his visit, Smith held wide-ranging discussions with his Indian counterpart, A.K. Antony, and spoke about increased interaction between the defence services of the two countries, both at bilateral and multilateral fora, such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), etc. Smith admitted that his visit marked an important milestone in the evolution of the Indo-Australian strategic partnership. Currently, India and Australia are holding the position of chair and vice-chair of the Indian Ocean Region-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), respectively.
One of the most important elements in the discussion on defence cooperation was the agreement on exploring the possibility of a full-fledged joint naval exercise in future. In December 2010, New Delhi hosted the inaugural Defence Policy Talks with Australia. Both the countries also have the Service-to-Service Staff Talks. It was also agreed that the practice of conducting Passage Exercises (PASSEX) by navies of the two countries during visits to each others’ ports would continue. Both the leaders further agreed to institute Track 1.5 dialogue (semi-governmental level) on defence matters between the two countries.
Regional security issues of common concern also seem to be bringing the two countries closer. Both the countries are seized with the challenges of maritime security, especially piracy and the freedom of navigation. To take the defence cooperation to a higher level, Smith invited Antony to visit Australia in 2012.
Understandably, the issue of South China Sea also came up for discussions. Both the countries agreed that maritime disputes should be resolved amicably as they can be “causes of misunderstanding.” As is well known, the South China Sea has been in the focus since China began objecting to foreign presence there, including Indian oil exploration activities. It is to be noted that China has had territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines. Unless the issue of maritime dispute is resolved amicably between the parties involved in accordance with laws and international norms, it was said that “they can be potential for misunderstanding or miscalculation.”1
Both India and Australia share common concerns over China’s actions in the South China Sea. Their views on maritime disputes are similar to those of several other nations and groupings in the region. However, Smith was only articulating Australia’s point of view on territorial disputes, which rejected China’s claim that the disputes in the South China Sea are “bilateral” and “outsiders” have no role to play.
Though China is Australia’s largest trading partner providing a huge market for its resources and primary products, it is still wary of China’s aggressive stance on some regional issues. It could be the reason for Australia seeking allies and partners to deal with challenges posed by an assertive China. The lifting of the ban on uranium exports to India could be part of Australia’s long-term strategy to balance/counter China in the region.
By lifting the ban on uranium exports to India, Australia hopes that it would help in deepening cooperation between the two countries on critical issues of mutual concern in the region. However, it also sets the stage for both the countries to start discussions on a nuclear safeguards agreement as well. But given the experience of Australia-China agreement, the discussions could be tough and it could be many years before India receives the first shipment of uranium from Australia. The Australian decision could also be based on its conviction that India would voluntarily bring itself under international regulators i.e., the IAEA and the NSG. It may be recalled that Australia had voted for a waiver for India in the NSG in 2008.
Before lifting the ban, Australia had floated the idea of a trilateral strategic dialogue with India and the US in October 2011. The idea was proposed to India through high-level diplomatic channels on the lines of the then proposed India-US-Japan tripartite talks, the first round of meeting of which was finally held in Washington on December 19, 2011, to discuss the India-Pacific strategic environment. Sensing India’s official position, Smith backtracked and termed the media reports on the trilateral strategic dialogue as “misreporting”, which, he claimed, arose from some think tanks coming out with a paper proposing such a course.2 India gave a cold shoulder to Canberra’s initiative as India did not envisage strategic ties with a country that chose to put restrictions on uranium exports citing outdated proliferation concerns. The previous Kevin Rudd Government maintained the ban on uranium exports to India when it came to power in 2008 though it continued to export uranium to China, US, South Korea, Taiwan and several European countries. The present government headed by Julian Gillard came under pressure from the Australian media to overturn the outdated policy at the Labor Party conference in December 2011.
Australia has noted that China is ambitiously claiming South China Sea as its backwaters and the PLA Navy is acquiring long legs through surface platforms. The India-Pacific powers, including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and the US have expressed their concerns over an assertive China. India has been engaging the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam through high-profile bilateral visits but Australia somehow has not figured in India’s strategic calculus prominently. There seems to be some reluctance in India to engage Australia seriously as the latter often tends to punch above its weight.
Australia seems to have suddenly woken up to the need for assuming a bigger role in the region’s security. In November, Australia agreed to host a de facto US base in the north of the country, augmenting the US’ military reach into Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Australia’s sudden policy reversal could have implications for its ties with China, its top trading partner, as Canberra tacitly works towards an informal anti-China grouping. However, India is not expected to join the Australian bandwagon and compromise its strategic autonomy. It would prefer to limit its role to bolstering defence cooperation with other countries on a strictly bilateral basis. India would not be interested in hoping onto any multilateral security grouping in the region. The only exceptions are those which come under the arrangements like the ARF and ADMM-Plus.
Though India would be keen to expand defence cooperation on a one-to-one basis with Australia, especially in counter-terrorism and maritime security issues, it is likely to remain averse to joining any regional security grouping directed against China. This is not to suggest that India is not wary of China’s aggressive behaviour, especially the massive military infrastructure coming up on the Chinese side of the 4,057 km long Line of Actual Control.
Australia may get caught in the US-China crossfire as it agrees to host nearly 2,500 US marines in the north, thereby escalating political and military tension in the region. China has not taken kindly to Australia’s decision and has cautioned Australia against allowing the US to use bases to “harm China” and risk getting “caught in the crossfire.”3 China is not oblivious of the fact that this is America’s first long-term military expansion in the region since the Vietnam War. India, on its part, would prefer be a neutral player in the on-going geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, one can also argue that the Australian decision to strengthen the US presence in the region may in due course force China to shift its attention away from the Indian borders towards the South China Sea.
From India’s strategic interests, increased US military presence in the region could be a balancing factor. It is to be noted that India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. (ONGC) is involved in exploring oil along with Vietnamese oil firms in the South China Sea. However, despite stakes in the region, India is unlikely to join any multilateral regional security grouping, including the Australian initiative for a trilateral with India and the US.
1. “India, Australia discuss South China sea issue”, December 9, 2011, at http://brahmand.com/news/India-Australia-discuss-South-China-sea-issue/8613/1/14.html
2. Sandeep Dikshit, “Smith denies India-Australia-U.S. strategic dialogue move”, The Hindu, December 8, 2011, at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2699008.ece
3. “Australia could be caught in Sino-US crossfire”, The Global Times, Editorial, November 16, 2011, at http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/684097/Australia-could-be-caught-in-Sino-US-crossfire.aspx
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IndiaslukewarmresponsetoAustraliasquestforatrilateraldialogue_rpanda_211211