This is what happens when determined leaders have a meeting of minds. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week signed a framework agreement to strengthen defence and security cooperation between their countries.
In a bilateral sense, this agreement is just another landmark among many from Modi’s welcome and historic visit to Australia. Its greater significance may lie in what it means for our shared Indo-Pacific region. For, here are two substantial powers creatively building their own future of security cooperation against common challenges, from terrorism to the risks of great-power coercion, quite distinct from old habits of alliance or non-alignment.
The text is substantial. It consolidates existing dialogues and activities. To be fair, progress had already been made in Australia-India security ties over the past decade: for instance, the commitment to annual naval exercises under the previous governments of Manmohan Singh and Julia Gillard. And Australia, under Kevin Rudd, had attempted to improve defence links with India through a less specific “security declaration” in 2009 — at which time India had held out against thoroughgoing strategic cooperation, seeing Australia’s then refusal to countenance uranium sales as an unacceptable signal of distrust.
But the new agreement goes considerably further. It includes formal dialogue on shared concerns about East Asian security — in other words, the impact of Chinese power and assertiveness. Notably, it encompasses ambitions to develop defence industry links — a recognition in part of the great potential of the Indian defence sector as it opens to the private sector and foreign investment.
It is no longer unthinkable that Australia’s ambitions for new defence technology and platforms will include the idea of “made in India”. It is a shame that the agreement was not more specific about the sensitive and high-technology sectors in which collaboration might be explored — including space and sensors — but such aspirations can be read as implicit in the agreement Modi has signed.
Likewise, India, with its large defence modernisation ambitions, can look more seriously at Australian defence science as a source of innovation. The fact that the two countries also operate some of the same US-supplied platforms — such as the C-17 heavy-lift and P8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft — may also point to future synergies.
Another area of promise is counter-terrorism. The agreement is refreshingly specific about the areas of counter-terror and counter-radicalisation on which these two multicultural democracies have a pressing need to collaborate, including in the sharing of intelligence as well as methods of thwarting improvised explosive devices.
Both India and Australia are confronted with the brutality of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh cult, and the prospect of new networks of jihadists linking the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia in a caravan of terror. Each has experience, knowledge and capabilities it can bring to concerted international efforts to tackle this direct threat to the security of its citizens and the values of its open society. India is now recognising Australia as a priority partner against terror. Precursors include Australia’s intelligence cooperation with India in ensuring the security of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, its success in terrorism investigations in Indonesia and the hard-gained experience of its military in Afghanistan.
Another area of collaboration identified in the new agreement is in countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Strikingly, just as India has shifted dramatically over the years to see Australia as a logical strategic and economic partner and an independent power, so too has Canberra completed a once-unimaginable journey to seeing India as an essential part of the solution on nuclear non-proliferation.
The agreement affirms Australia’s support for Indian admission to the so-called “export control regimes” that seek to manage the global trade in materials usable in building nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The easiest way forward would be for Australia, as the permanent chair of the Australia Group on chemical and biological non-proliferation, to coordinate India’s entry to that arrangement as a test-run for the others.
Australia has had a bipartisan change of heart on nuclear issues — both the conservative government and the Labor opposition now back safeguarded uranium sales to India. The administrative arrangements are still being finalised, and for the integrity of Australia’s global stance on non-proliferation, these should discriminate neither against India nor for it. The key issue is that Australia now treats India as a responsible nuclear power.
However, it is in maritime security and the changing power balance in the Indo-Pacific region that the greatest long-term impact of the new defence partnership will be felt. This is set to go beyond bilateralism. Abbott has already hinted at the possibility of trilateral naval exercises. It would make good sense for India and Australia to take advantage of their contiguous Indian Ocean geography, credible naval capabilities and complementary webs of partnerships to build innovative “minilateral” arrangements and exercises with Indonesia, Japan and Australia’s close ally, the United States. A geometry of overlapping triangles would be more subtle and durable than a revival of the 2007 quadrilateral.
At times, Australia and India could cooperate with China, too, including in search and rescue, disaster relief, counter-piracy and peacekeeping. A core partnership of Australia and India could be useful in encouraging Asia-Pacific countries to get used to an Indian presence east of Malacca, as well as in managing the inevitability of a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
This week, India has, at the highest level, reciprocated Australia’s attitude of recent years, with mutual recognition of the other as a priority strategic partner. In a world of multiple threats and risks, the security establishments in both countries are understandably busy and have often found it easy to summon excuses as to why they cannot devote extra resources to building links with each other. That will no longer wash. Two ambitious navigators have charted a clear course, and now it is up to the forces and officials of their two maritime nations to set sail in earnest.
The writer is a senior researcher with the Lowy Institute and the incoming head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.