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Modi’s Australia visit: Maritime Cooperation in Focus

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 13, 2014

    As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to leave for Brisbane for the G-20 summit, there is considerable excitement among India’s maritime analysts. On completion of the world leaders’ meet, the prime minister will then have bilateral talks with Australian prime minister. Among a range of issues, maritime cooperation is expected to top the agenda for discussions.

    Ever since Canberra officially declared its interests in the Indian Ocean last year, there has been hectic speculation about the possibility of an India-Australia maritime security arrangement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Indeed, over the past few years Australia has been trying to strengthen its nautical posture in the Indian Ocean. As a part of its Indian Ocean outreach it has started reviving its ties with regional states, especially its relationship with India – a key security provider in the IOR.

    In a series of bilateral visits and official declarations recently, Canberra has expressed a desire for a deeper, more purposeful maritime association with New Delhi. Last year, on a special invitation from Australia, the Indian navy (IN) sent its latest indigenous warship INS Sahyadri to participate in the International Fleet Review (IFR) in Sydney – a move widely perceived as a sign of a growing nautical convergence.

    Not only was India one of the few Indian Ocean states to have been invited to the IFR, the maritime interaction stood out as being the first concrete achievement in a set of deliverables envisaged during a landmark bilateral interaction last year. It was during AK Antony’s visit to Canberra in June 2013 – the first ever by an Indian minister of defence - that India and Australia had agreed to conduct regular ministerial level meetings, frequent 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 IORA) and the Asia-Pacific region (via the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus).

    Since then, India and Australia have been giving serious consideration to proposals for a more substantive naval collaboration. In his visit to New Delhi a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Tony Abbott discussed the prospects for greater cooperation in the maritime domain. The joint statement at the end of the visit reaffirmed a common desire for a “peaceful, prosperous and stable Asia-Pacific region, underpinned by cooperative mechanisms”. The maritime collaboration now stretches across the policy and operational spheres, and is exemplified by the decision to conduct defence policy dialogues, armed forces staff talks, professional military exchanges, and even a bilateral naval exercise - the first of which will be held next year. Considering that the last time the two navies had a structured operational engagement was during exercise-Malabar in 2007, the developing correspondence of maritime interests seems even more substantial.

    And yet, the maritime interaction between the Indian navy and Royal Australian navy (RAN) hasn't attained the critical mass needed for a self-sustaining relationship. While it is true that the two navies have worked together in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the joint maritime endeavours still lack the momentum needed for a durable partnership. The statements of intent have been encouraging, but have not triggered operational cooperation in all areas of maritime security.

    It is believed that while the Indian navy is keen to expand the scope of the 2015 exercises, a continuing political ambivalence prevents the injection of strategic content into the maritime relationship. If India-Australia maritime cooperation has to be taken to a higher level, however, the naval exercises next year will need to focus on high-end engagement. The extant template of operations that limits maritime interaction to exercises such as ‘search and rescue’ (SAR) and ‘disaster relief and humanitarian assistance’ (HADR), will need to be expanded to include high-spectrum operations like anti-submarine warfare and anti-air drills, VBSS operations, Special Forces engagement etc.

    From an Indian standpoint, it is pertinent that Canberra’s options for maritime partnerships in the Indian Ocean are not limited. In recent days, Australia has indicated its willingness to partner Seychelles and Mauritius, two key Indian Ocean island states, in a ‘blue economy’ project, meant to harness the potential of the Indian Ocean. This comes with the promise of greater capability for hydrocarbon exploration in the Seychelles’ EEZ and better Australian technology to harvest renewable energy from the ocean’s waves. The marine economy projects Canberra is willing to underwrite have considerable traction with many smaller Indian Ocean states.

    Even in its maritime relationship with India, the impetus for bilateral collaboration has come from Australia. The extent to which Canberra regards cooperation with New Delhi as being critical for regional maritime security is clear from Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper which prioritises relations with India and Indonesia. Interestingly, only a few months after the release of the White Paper, Australia released a Country Strategy Document on India which identified the Indian Navy as possessing the most potential for a close maritime partnership.

    The deepening of India-Australia maritime cooperation comes at a time when Canberra is drawing closer with Tokyo, and building a more pragmatic political relation with Jakarta. Reports from Canberra about a potential deal for the procurement of the Soryu class submarines from Japan, and the reinvigoration of a political dialogue with Indonesia to resolve the sea-boundary dispute are a sign that Australia is forging a network of strategic relationships in its near and extended neighbourhood. Strategic ties with Japan and Indonesia are a key factor in India’s own geopolitical calculus, because of which New Delhi will be interested in observing the developing inter-regional synergies closely.

    The most important factor driving India-Australia maritime security cooperation is the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. This novel geo-strategic construct, which integrates the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean into one unified theatre, is premised on the idea of stronger security cooperation between regional states. Officially recognised by Australia in its 2013 Defence White Paper, the concept is beginning to find greater acceptance in India. A number of Indian analysts now agree that in the implementation of the current government’s ‘Act East Policy’ needs to legitimise the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept - even if in a qualified sense. Some analysts even recommend the  creation of Indo-Pacific ‘middle power coalitions’ - an informal arrangements where the  powers in the middle would make it a priority to strengthen and help one another, working in self-selecting groups, or ‘minilateral’ arrangements that do not include China or the United States.

    The imperative for India to cooperate with Australia is also driven by the fact that the latter is in charge of both the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the IORA. The Indian navy has been the motivating force behind the IONS initiative and is keen to see the grouping enhance its stature and utility. India has also, for the past few years, been the prime mover of the IORA agenda and realises the need to engage with like-minded nations.

    It will be in India’s interests to develop a strong maritime relationship with Australia. In the past few weeks India has shown it is ready to refocus attention on its Indo-Pacific partnerships by reaching out to Japan, the US and Vietnam. A maritime security arrangement with Australia will serve as a good augury.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India