India and Australia held their first-ever virtual summit on 4 June 2020. The restrictions placed on travel due to the pandemic pushed the two countries to consider meeting virtually to advance their bilateral ties, even as meetings scheduled to take place earlier were cancelled. The first major outcome of the summit was the enhancement of India-Australia relations to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). The advancement to CSP in the bilateral ties comes a decade after their ties were elevated to a Strategic Partnership. This shift is not merely semantic but needs to be understood within the overall context of shifts shaping the Indo-Pacific, which necessitate these countries coming closer together.
The summit saw the signing of nine agreements between India and Australia that expand to cover areas of trade, technology and security. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the two-way bilateral trade in goods and services between the two countries stood at AU$30.3 billion for 2018-19. Two-way bilateral investments between the countries stood at the level of AU$30.7 billion for 2018. There is, however, a trade imbalance because of India’s reliance on coal from Australia.
The summit discussed furthering the negotiations on the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, discussions for which began in May 2011 and are yet to be concluded. Australia also highlighted the importance of India reconsidering its membership into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which New Delhi withdrew from. India’s concerns relating to the finalisation of the service sector agreements and opening of markets to Chinese goods were critical in its decision to exit the RCEP negotiations.
On the technological level, an agreement on cyber and cyber-enabled critical technology cooperation was finalised. The agreement aims at improving cyber resilience of several countries in the region through a joint fund creation that will enable and enhance R&D in the areas of cyber technology used in business partnerships. Another core agreement was on mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals. This agreement needs to be assessed in two ways—first, with the impact of the pandemic on global supply chains, the undisrupted supply of non-fuel minerals is critical for India’s manufacturing sector. Second, Australia produces 55% of the global output of lithium. The Indian government’s efforts to push ahead with the Make in India programme, particularly in the auto industry and electric car production, can be enhanced through this agreement.
A crucial agreement at the security level remains the key focus of this summit—the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) is the first of its kind with Australia. This clearly reflects the growing areas of security convergence between the two countries, having gone from the lowest ebb during India’s nuclear tests to the current levels, endorsing issues of regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. Enhancing military interoperability and providing logistics support for each other in their respective military bases is the core component of the agreement.
A key focus for both these countries is to engage more robustly on security-related matters, particularly focused on the maritime domain, which has been reflected in the Joint Declaration on Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, Prime Minister Morrison’s statement following the summit highlighted that the two countries had built their ties on the basis of ‘mutual understanding, trust and common interests’, directly indicating the levels of convergence on ‘shared values of democracy and the rule of law’. This has been a core focus for both India and Australia in the maritime domain, because structural shifts in the Indo-Pacific are impacting the normative behaviour of states over maritime territorial claims.
As India and Australia have recently faced tensions in their bilateral ties with China, they reassert the importance of the existing normative frameworks, with a particular emphasis on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), addressing their mutual adherence to a rules-based international order. The Shared Vision reiterates the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative proposed by Prime Minister Modi during the 2019 East Asia Summit (EAS). The focus of this initiative was to enhance avenues for a collaborative security framework for the Indo-Pacific region.
The Shared Vision clearly endorses that the regional security architecture for the Indo-Pacific will be dependent on multiple types of frameworks—ranging from bilateral to minilateral and multilateral options. This approach to calibrating the regional security architecture clearly addresses several distinct layers that are critical. While building on their bilateral relations, Australia and India are also focused on promoting minilateralism through frameworks such as the Australia-India-Japan trilateral; the IORA trilateral dialogue on the Indian Ocean (TDIO) with Australia-India-Indonesia.
The TDIO has also been suggested as a possible framework to advance the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative where these three countries act as the security pillar within the EAS to address issues in the maritime domain. Other quadrilateral and multilateral processes reiterate the security convergences between the two countries. As the regional security challenges continue to shift, both India and Australia need to critically build on the existing frameworks to promote regional stability in the Indo-Pacific.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi