By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Security cooperation between India and Australia has taken another step forward. The two countries recently completed the inaugural round of a joint military exercise, Austra Hind 2022, involving the Indian and Australian armies. This is notable not only as a sign of India’s growing comfort with its partners in the Indo-Pacific but also as a further indication that the vital relationship between India and Australia is deepening steadily after years of wavering between tentative and downright sceptical.
Australia took a rather strong stance against India’s nuclear tests in 1998—something that has rankled many Indian observers. India also blames Australia for scuttling the first effort at creating the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007—now simply known as the Quad—though New Delhi itself didn’t appear altogether enthusiastic about the initiative either back then.
This rather sorry history now seems, hopefully, to be in the rear-view mirror for both sides—a critical trend for two major Indo-Pacific democracies that share growing strategic interests, principally balancing China’s growing assertiveness. This cooperation has plenty more scope for growth.
After resisting for several years, India finally invited Australia to join the US and Japan as partners in its Malabar naval exercise in 2020. India has also been positively inclined towards the AUKUS partnership, despite some concerns in the Indian strategic community that it could undermine the Quad. Indeed, Indian officials rejected any concerns about the central element of AUKUS—the potential supply of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. More recently, India joined with Brazil to scuttle a Chinese effort to create roadblocks to the development of an Australian nuclear submarine through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In June, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles visited India for apparently successful talks with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh. This included pushing a joint working group on ‘defence research and materiel cooperation’.
The Austra Hind exercise takes this trend further. The exercise was held at the Mahajan Field Firing Ranges in Rajasthan, a western Indian state that borders Pakistan. The Australian side was represented by the 13th Brigade of the 2nd Division and the Indian side involved troops from the Dogra Regiment. Ahead of the exercise, the public information wing of the Indian Army in a tweet said that the two-week long exercises would be conducted ‘with focus on Peacekeeping Operations under the UN mandate’. An Indian Ministry of Defence statement said that it would now be an annual exercise conducted alternately in India and Australia. For good measure, the statement concluded that the exercise, ‘besides promoting understanding and interoperability between the two armies, will further help in strengthening ties between India and Australia’.
The driving force behind the increased strategic cooperation between the two Indo-Pacific powers is the common concern about China’s growing power and assertiveness in the region. As the latest China military power report from the US Department of Defense indicated, China’s growing wealth is now being converted into military power, which will impact the Indo-Pacific region directly because of the simple fact of proximity. Both countries have been facing the brunt of China’s pressure over the past few years. In 2020, Chinese forces deployed in strength across the Ladakh region of India at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the temporary border between India and China. The resulting confrontation culminated in a clash that killed 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers. The Sino-Indian border remains tense, with another skirmish reported recently at the eastern section of the LAC. India has responded not only by improving its own defences but also by building new partnerships, which includes Australia.
Australia has faced pressure of a different kind, with economic blackmail and threats from Beijing, even if they have been less than successful. Canberra has responded by strengthening its partnerships with its traditional ally, the US, and with Japan. But Australia has also looked to India, a fellow democracy with significant military capability and political willingness to counter China.
If mutual interest is driving them together, there are also unresolved questions about how far the partnership can go. This is a question that all of India’s new partners face, not just Australia. For one, India has traditionally eschewed military alliances. Despite growing military cooperation with its partners, New Delhi remains uncomfortable with a formal mutual defence agreement with any country. In addition to its non-aligned legacy, practical considerations also matter. India faces China along its land borders, but not yet at sea. Although China’s naval power is increasing rapidly, it will be a while before it can make its presence significantly felt in the waters close to India. New Delhi appears not to be expecting or even wanting direct military assistance at the border, at least for now, which limits the value of alliances. And it has little interest in carrying the fight to the seas around China, which limits what it can offer its partners.
These limitations notwithstanding, there is still a lot that India and Australia can do for each other, partly because they are starting from such a low base. Greater interaction between the two countries’ militaries can enhance both, and there is still value to be added on this score. Other forms of cooperation, such as intelligence sharing, would also be very beneficial to both sides. At sea, even without directly cooperating, India and Australia can help each other through efforts that increase maritime domain awareness. And of course, both sides are also helping one another politically, as India demonstrated on the AUKUS issue at the IAEA.
While the latest military exercises are a modest further step forward, the relationship is moving very much in the right direction.
This article originally appeared in The Strategist .