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IAF to participate in air combat exercise in Australia: New Delhi-Canberra ties on the upswing, but disagreements remain

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is participating in the ‘Pitch Black’ air combat exercise hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The exercise will be held in Australia from 24 July to 18 August. The IAF contingent will consist of 145 air-warriors including the Garud team, four Su-30MKI fighters, one C-130 special operations aircraft and one C-17 transporter. This is IAF’s maiden participation in the biggest multilateral air combat exercise in the southern hemisphere. Can this move be seen as a step towards consolidating the Quadrilateral among India, the United States, Japan and Australia?

There is no doubt that India-Australia strategic relations are gradually on the upswing. There is greater diplomatic discussion underpinned by growing engagement in foreign and security policy and military-to-military interactions. A civil nuclear co-operation agreement was signed during former prime minister Tony Abbot’s India visit in 2014. In December 2017, New Delhi and Canberra held their inaugural 2+2 dialogue between foreign and defence secretaries. Their navies began their annual maritime exercise in 2015 and a second edition took place in 2017.

In the Australian government’s 2017 foreign policy white paper, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region figured prominently, along with a clear assertion of the need to expand economic ties with a rising India. This white paper does not explicitly say that Australia and other countries should combine to balance against China’s growing power, but that is the clear implication. For instance, it characterises the South China Sea disputes as ‘a major fault line in the regional order,’ proclaiming Australia’s intention to ‘conduct co-operative activities with other countries consistent with international law.’ The use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, instead of the ‘Asia-Pacific’, also underlines the importance of India in Australia’s strategic vision.

 IAF to participate in air combat exercise in Australia: New Delhi-Canberra ties on the upswing, but disagreements remain

File image of Narendra Modi and Malcolm Turnbull. PTI

The Quadrilateral or Quad is widely seen to have emerged to manage China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region. Presently, Australia has a trilateral strategic dialogue framework with the US and Japan, while India, the US and Japan have their own established format. Australia believes that ‘the Quad is a natural extension of these mini-lateral relationships,’ and ‘just one of the many ways in which Australia will seek to engage with partners,’ as underlined by Julie Bishop, Australia’s minister of foreign affairs.

Now, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has released his government’s new India economic strategy. The focus of this extremely detailed report is trade, but geopolitical alignment between India and Australia is one of its important pillars. New Delhi and Canberra seem concerned about declining US strategic dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Their fears of Chinese intentions to replace the US are not unfounded, since Beijing has a poor track record in maintaining a rules-based international order. Australia firmly believes that India cannot be seen ‘only as an economic partner but also as a geopolitical partner’ because of ‘growing geopolitical complementarity between Australia and India.’

This report also talks of India undergoing a ‘major geopolitical repositioning’ as it ends non-alignment and becomes more ‘hard-headed’ to defend its national interests by forging ‘stronger strategic ties with a wide range of countries.’ Most importantly, in its attempt to comprehend the key drivers of India’s strategic thinking, the report says that six factors are important: First, an attachment to ‘strategic autonomy’; second, strategic competition with China for regional influence; third, growing comfort in increasing strategic co-operation with the US and its allies such as Japan and Australia; fourth, continued support for a liberal international order without subscribing to American ‘exceptionalism’, fifth, increase in defence capability to bolster its strategic autonomy; and sixth, lack of enthusiasm for global democracy promotion. There are a few notes of caution as well. The report asserts that Australia and India do not share identical perspectives regarding China. The Indian view is largely shaped by its need to preserve its freedom of manoeuvre and a fear that China’s rising assertiveness could constrain India’s strategic choices. Australia claims not to view China ‘as an enemy or a hostile power.’

Although exactly how Australia can manage China’s rise is debatable, there is a bipartisan consensus about India being a reliable partner. Canberra has regularly discussed with New Delhi the issue of Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercise between India, the US and Japan. However, India continues to reject its request to join the exercise. In the 22nd version of the Malabar exercise held off Guam in the middle of June this year, India again decided to go ahead trilaterally without including the Australian Navy. The shadow of previous desertion by Australia is the primary reason behind India’s reluctance to invite Australia. The first informal Quad summit was held in 2007 in Manila in August, followed by Malabar naval exercise in September when the four navies joined their Singaporean counterpart. As Chinese protested vehemently, the government led by Kevin Rudd pulled Australia out of the exercises. Suspicious of Australia’s reliability and commitment are still dominant in New Delhi.

Moreover, Australia’s participation may have symbolic value in highlighting the partnership between the maritime democracies but is likely to add marginally to India’s efforts to maintain balance and stability in Asia. In fact, both countries are also aware that their bilateral relationship with China cannot be sacrificed on the promise of a collective arrangement which has not worked in the past. However, China’s growing reach into the Indian Ocean is likely to persuade New Delhi to make a policy shift as India needs more and more friends to mitigate its strategic concerns in the region.

A focus on diplomatic and military activities between the two countries is a unique opportunity to enhance bilateral relations and demonstrate a commitment to ‘rules-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific. India often sees itself as a leading Indian Ocean power whereas Australia usually places a greater value on the Pacific Ocean, leading to different perspectives on geopolitical issues. If Canberra is serious in building close geopolitical ties with New Delhi, it cannot do without engaging more substantively with Indian political leadership and India’s strategic thought.

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Updated Date: Jul 19, 2018 15:35:58 IST