It may seem calculated that PM Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison held both their first-ever bilateral virtual summits (thanks, COVID) just as China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) sits threateningly inside territory that India claims... but it’s really just fortuitous.
“I believe it’s the perfect time, the perfect chance, to strengthen the India-Australia friendship. There are endless possibilities.”PM Narendra Modi at the India-Australia Virtual Summit
The timing has allowed PM Modi to frame India-Australia relations as being at an especially significant juncture, as the two countries grapple with a bellicose post-COVID China – one facing military aggression at its border, and the other facing economic coercion.
Comments to The Hindu by Indian defence sources gave a fillip to this reading, saying India is now ‘open’ to including Australia in the so-far-trilateral Malabar exercises. India green-lighting Australia’s inclusion after repeated past denials would move the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) between India, US, Australia and Japan from being a high-level ministerial dialogue in 2019, to one with some real muscle behind it a year later – that’s rapid movement for a grouping that had stalled for a decade from 2007-2017.
This view is helped along by the fact of a new defence pact signed at the summit, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), which increases interoperability between the two countries’ militaries – that means allowing access to and use of each other’s military bases for logistical support.
The Quad has been a thorn in Beijing’s side since it was first floated in 2007 by Japan. The grouping of these Indo-Pacific powers is seen by China as an attempt to constrain it in the Indian Ocean, while the Quad member states see it as a defensive measure against Chinese aggression.
A revival of the Quad, complete with military coordination, is something that would set alarm bells ringing in Beijing even as it sits nestled in Ladakh.
But the fact is that the trajectory of the India-Australia relationship had been on this path for years already.
A Long Time Coming
Dr Ian Hall, Professor of International Relations at Australia’s Griffith University, Deputy Director of Griffith Asia Institute, and author of ‘Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy’, explained that the developments around the summit, including the possibility of Australia joining Malabar, were already in the making.
“The timing is really due to the fact that Morrison could not travel in January because of the bushfires, and the coronavirus crisis then followed on after that. So this is really the first point at which a summit could happen. The fact that it has coincided with whatever is happening in Ladakh is an accident, really. What was announced today was going to be announced back in January, if Morrison had been able to visit and go to Raisina.”Dr Ian Hall, Deputy Director, Griffith Asia Institute to The Quint
Australia and The Quad
China’s objections to the Quad had, back in 2008, led to Australia, under then-PM Kevin Rudd, pulling out of the grouping in a joint press conference with China’s then-foreign minister. This was after having participated in the 2007 Malabar exercises under the previous Howard government.
By 2017, circumstances had changed, and Australia had rejoined the Quad. India, though, has been reticent about allowing Australia into the Malabar exercises again, out of an unease with its commitment to the grouping given its previous abandonment, out of discomfort that ties with Australia weren’t as deep as its ties with the US and Japan, and out of a reluctance to antagonise China.
But in a show of its renewed commitment, Australia has not stopped trying to rejoin the Malabar exercises since 2015, despite being rebuffed every year.
Australia’s Complicated Relationship With China
Australia may be all-in on the Quad, but from its perspective, the mere perception of its entry into Malabar being linked to the Ladakh border dispute in this fashion may not be helpful.
“An invitation (to the Malabar exercises from New Delhi) has long been seen as a way of signalling displeasure with Beijing. But it hasn’t actually been issued yet, and I’m sure Canberra would prefer if that happened after the standoff on the LAC ends to any impression that they are involved in what is a bilateral dispute.”Dr Ian Hall
China is, after all, Australia’s largest trading partner. Already, China is extracting heavy economic costs from Australia in retaliation to its push for an independent inquiry into the COVID pandemic, including into its origins. China has seen this as an attack on itself, and employed economic coercion on Australian sectors like barley and meat exports, with the Chinese envoy even making not-so-veiled threats to discourage Chinese students from studying in Australia – not a small thing, considering how much Australian universities rake in from Chinese students paying full fees to study.
But it seems that New Delhi has kept these considerations in mind by refraining from making any official statement on Australia’s inclusion in Malabar, with only source-based quotes making it to the press. Independent defence analyst Abhijnan Rej notes:
“By making no such announcement, New Delhi has wisely decided to delink the boundary flare-up from its decisions to deepen defence ties with China’s antagonists for the time being. This is especially important given that India officially continues to portray the India-China dispute as a localised, theatre-level issue arising out of differing perceptions of the boundary. However, at the same time, it has also split the difference, in an effort to not appear as being cowed down by Beijing, by going ahead with the long-planned mutual logistics support agreement with Canberra. That said, should the crisis with China balloon into something much larger, New Delhi could play the naval quad card, though with uncertain consequences.”Abhijnan Rej, Independent Defence Analyst
The India-Australia relationship has been on an upward trajectory for a while now, and although China’s actions in Ladakh may not have been the trigger for the developments around the virtual summit, China’s increasing bellicosity everywhere from the South China Sea, to Hong Kong, to its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy (in which envoys and diplomats have been making provocative statements, particularly on social media), has raised hackles around the world.
What Came of the Summit?
The most significant development from the virtual summit was the elevation of the relationship from a Strategic Partnership in 2009 to now a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). India has CSPs with the US, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the UAE, while Australia has CSPs with China, Indonesia, and Singapore. There was also a joint statement by the two countries on a ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ – a statement that will have relevance for China, even though the MEA reportedly denies that China was discussed. The mention of ‘ensuring freedom of navigation’ and a ‘rules-based Indo-Pacific region’ echoes what is said by the US and the Quad and is understood to refer to pushing back against China’s perceived aggression in the South China Sea in particular.
In addition to these, seven other agreements were signed, including the landmark defence pact, MLSA, and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on critical minerals, the vast majority of which India currently sources from China. Other agreements included MoUs on education, water, and critical technology cooperation.
(Khemta Hannah Jose is an independent journalist based in Sydney, Australia. She tweets @khemtajose. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)