With INS Sahyadri – India’s modern stealth frigate – participation in the just concluded International Fleet Review (IFR) in Sydney, there has been some enthusiastic discussion in India’s strategy circles on the state of the India-Australia maritime relationship, recently witnessing a major revival.
The Royal Australian Navy’s fleet review (04 – 10 October) is a useful start point to look at the growing maritime convergence between India and Australia. For a start, the IFR is a high profile affair and the centrepiece of the Royal Australian Navy’s centenary celebrations this year. With a participation of more than 40 naval ships, 16 tall ships, 60 aircraft and 8000 sailors from 19 countries, it can justifiably be called as the ‘defining’ maritime event in Australia’s 2013 maritime calendar.
The Sahyadri’s presence in the IFR is significant, as it came about following a special invitation extended by the Australian Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, during the visit of his Indian counterpart, A K Antony, to Australia in June this year. For the Indian navy, the Australian invitation is a particular privilege as not many Indian Ocean navies have been invited for the IFR.
While it is indeed ‘routine’ for a naval ship to be a part of a ‘naval fleet review’, the Sahyadri’s participation is still being seen as diplomatically consequential, as it is the first concrete deliverable on a series of working principles agreed upon during the Defence Ministers’Dialogue. These include organising regular bilateral defence ministers' meetings, exchanges between the defence establishments, and effective diplomatic and maritime collaboration - both in the Indian Ocean Region (through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the IOR-ARC) and the Asia-Pacific region (via the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus).
Predictably, maritime security topped the bilateral agenda, with both countries giving serious consideration to proposals for an expanded and more substantive naval collaboration. Despite some sceptics declaring the agreements to be more in the nature of ‘empty rhetoric’ than ‘hard substance’, the comprehensive nature of the proposals seemed to suggest otherwise. Indeed, on closer look it is evident that both India and Australia are trying hard to shed their traditional reticence and engage in the maritime domain, with both sides agreeing to a drastic overhaul of the existing exchanges.
The plan for enhanced interaction though rudimentary, is conspicuous by its intent to encompass the gamut of security engagement. This includes the conduct of the defence policy dialogues, armed forces staff talks, professional military exchanges, and even – for the first time - bilateral naval exchanges to build confidence and familiarity between the navies.
Interestingly, the plan gives a timeline for operational cooperation in the maritime domain. Both sides, the plan mandates, will work towards a bilateral maritime exercise in 2015. Viewed in the context of the fact that the last time the two navies had a structured operational engagement was during exercise-Malabar’ in 2007, the proposal for expanded maritime cooperation appears even more substantial. Some of the modalities of the forthcoming exchanges at sea were discussed during the visit of the Australian Naval chief-of-Staff, Vice Admiral Vice Admiral Ray Griggs in June to New Delhi, where he had wide ranging talks with his Indian counterpart Admiral D K Joshi.
Now, it isn’t as if the Indian navy and RAN have not had any operational contact recently. Both navies have been working together in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Each could however do with some added momentum to cooperative measures and a greater synergy in their operational interaction – precisely the things that the two navy chief’s may have discussed during their meeting. It is entirely possible that the 2015 exercises will see a level of cooperation that goes beyond basic ‘search and rescue’ and ‘disaster relief and humanitarian assistance’ drills.
To be sure, the impetus for maritime cooperation, at the moment, seems to be coming more from Australia. The extent to which Canberra regards cooperation with New Delhi as being critical for regional maritime security can be made out from its 2013 Defence White Paper which clearly prioritises relations with two growing powers in the Indo-Pacific Region – India and Indonesia. The direction of Australia’s developing security strategy was further confirmed by the back-to-back release of the Country Strategy Documents on Indonesia and India in August this year. Not surprisingly, as he released the India Country Strategy document, Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd observed that Australia's relationship with India had “perhaps the greatest potential to grow out of all of Australia's significant bilateral relationships in Asia."
For its part, India has been alive to the need to revitalise its strategic relationship with Australia and Indonesia. This has been amply demonstrated, not only by New Delhi’s recent bilateral exchanges with Canberra, but also by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s planned visit to Indonesia after the East Asia Summit in Brunei later this week. There is, however, still a sense that India is understating its eagerness for bilateral security cooperation, choosing to proceed at a measured pace.
A key reason why India’s renewed security and maritime engagement with Australia is of greater relevance than official sources would care to admit, is that the strategic outreach comes at a time when the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been gaining traction. This new geo-strategic construct – officially accepted and legitimised by the Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper - integrates the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean into one unified theatre, and is premised on the idea of stronger security cooperation between growing powers in the composite region. India realises that for the success of its ‘Look-East’ Policy – of which security of trade and energy flows is a critical part - it will eventually need to embrace the concept, even if in a qualified sense.
The imperative for India to cooperate with Australia is also driven by the fact that the latter is due to take charge next year of both the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the IOR-ARC – two regional institutions New Delhi has a significant stake in. The Indian navy has been the motivating force behind the IONS initiative and is quite keen to see the grouping enhance its stature and utility. India has also, for the past few years, been the prime mover of the IOR-ARC agenda. For the success of both institutions, it needs to engage with like-minded nations. Australia, presently, seems to top the list of potential partners.
Following the election in Australia last month, there were apprehensions expressed in some quarters that the new conservative government led by Tony Abbot may do a rethink on Australia’s strategic priorities as expressed in its new defence White Paper. This included closer defence cooperation with India and Indonesia. But Defence Minister AK Antony’s meeting with Julie Bishop and Senator David Johnston - Shadow Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence – during his June visit, calmed Indian concerns, providing much needed reassurance that defence and maritime co-operation will continue, regardless of the party in power in Canberra.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.