Commentary |
26 December 2021

Settling in for long, fruitful innings with new partner India

Originally published in The Australian.

Michael Fullilove
Michael Fullilove

The fluctuations in US policy over the past decade, and the increasing severity of Chinese behaviour, are prompting three important developments in Indo-Pacific security. First, a number of regional powers are adopting a larger view of their own potential and seeking to increase their freedom of movement. No one wants to live in another country’s shadow.

I have been impressed by the steps taken by India to protect its sovereignty and adopt a flexible foreign policy suited to the times, including an upgraded relationship with the US and membership of important new institutional arrangements such as the Quad.

In Australia’s case, we have bolstered our internal resilience, increased defence spending and, most recently, entered the new AUKUS defence pact with the US and UK, involving the development of a nuclear-powered Australian submarine fleet. This is an ambitious step, a signal that Australia intends to shape its external environment and contribute to the regional balance of power. AUKUS is not just about submarines, however. It is also about technology sharing, cyber capabilities and artificial intelligence.

It reminds me of something Winston Churchill said in 1940, when the US provided Britain with destroyers in exchange for access to naval bases. Churchill said the two countries “will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage”. I suspect that in the face of new challenges, we will once again see like-minded countries getting more “mixed up together”.

Second, there have been important institutional developments in the Indo-Pacific, foremost among them President Joe Biden’s elevation of the Quad to the leaders’ level. In his 2021 Lowy Lecture, Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, described the Quad as an example of the new “latticework” of institutional arrangements, “more flexible, ad hoc, more political than legal, sometimes more temporary than permanent”. In this sense, he said, the architecture of international co-operation is acquiring “more of a Frank Gehry character than the formal Greek architecture of the post-war era”.

And indeed, the first in-person Quad leaders’ meeting, held at the White House in September, was every bit as eye-catching as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It was a tremendous thing to see the leaders of four highly capable Indo-Pacific democracies come together to progress a positive agenda of co-operation.

The Quad is a reminder for Australians that we must increase our investment in diplomacy as well as defence – and in new relationships as well as old ones. The Anglosphere is necessary but not sufficient. We need to thicken our links with other Indo-Pacific powers, including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia – and India.

This strengthening of bilateral relationships between like-minded countries is the third major Indo-Pacific development. The relationship between New Delhi and Canberra has the character of a long innings at the crease. We started off slowly, but now that we have settled in, we’re taking our shots and the runs are flowing.

Today, our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership encompasses regular meetings of prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers, as well as military exercises and military-to-military contacts.

I would like us to be even more ambitious. The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index indicates that neither the US nor China will be able to exert undisputed primacy in our region. A bipolar future beckons. In this future, the decisions made by other Indo-Pacific powers, including India and Australia, will be highly consequential. Countries such as ours have the means to influence the regional balance of power – and a clear interest in doing so. But we will need to step up.

My challenge to the decision-makers on Raisina Hill in New Delhi and Capital Hill in Canberra, therefore, is to look for practical and imaginative new ways that India and Australia can strengthen our bilateral relationship and together contribute to Indo-Pacific stability. I believe we should improve interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and the Indian Armed Forces; upgrade the level of consultation and information-sharing between our diplomats and intelligence services; co-operate more on infrastructure financing in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean region; and reinvigorate our trilateral partnerships with Indonesia and Japan.

We should also establish a high-level Strategic Economic Dialogue between Australia and India. International relations are driven by economics. And the run rate in the economic relationship between our two countries is much slower than it should be.

People-to-people links are very strong. Today, more Australians were born in India than in any other foreign country but England. Yet despite India’s immense market size, only about 3 per cent of Australia’s goods exports go to India, made up almost entirely of coal. And India does not make our “top 20” countries as either a source or a recipient of foreign investment. The dismantling of the misconceived “Fortress Australia” approach to Covid-19, and the recent reopening of Australia’s borders to international students and skilled migrants, will re-energise our ties. I also welcome the news that our two governments have decided to fast-track negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement.

Australian governments and businesses must lift their game. But so must Indian governments and businesses. Australian firms still find India a difficult place to do business. I would also like to see the Indian government take a more positive and ambitious approach to trade liberalisation.

Countries such as India and Australia have the wherewithal to help shape Asia’s future. But we need to believe in ourselves – and in each other. The good news is that our publics already do. The 2021 Lowy Institute Poll revealed that six out of 10 Australians trust India either “a great deal” or “somewhat”, which represents a remarkable increase of 16 points in a single year. This puts India on par with Australians’ level of trust in our principal ally, the US.

In the 2021 ORF Foreign Policy Survey, two-thirds of young Indians said they trust Australia either “completely” or “somewhat”, second only to their trust in the US. These are strikingly complementary results – and all the more welcome for that fact. Now it is for policymakers to match the foresight of their peoples. We live in a time of great strategic flux. I’m confident Australia and India can help determine the complexion of the game – if we have the strategic imagination to do so.

This is an extract from Michael Fullilove’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture, organised by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.