The ‘2+2’ India-Australia Ministerial Dialogue was held in New Delhi on November 20, 2023. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong as part of the dialogue. India and Australia vowed to deepen their economic and security partnership and stressed their shared commitment to a “free, open, inclusive and rules-based” Indo-Pacific, a region which has been witnessing China’s growing assertiveness. Both countries discussed and highlighted the importance of moving forward on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) negotiations.
First Ministerial Dialogue – Supply Chain Resilience
The inaugural ‘2+2’ ministerial dialogue between India and Australia took place in September 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic. India and Australia then agreed to work together through multilateral, regional and plurilateral mechanisms to strengthen and diversify supply chains for critical health, technology and other goods and services. In this context, both countries launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) by the Trade Ministers of India, Australia and Japan.
In June 2020, India and Australia elevated their ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) and signed a landmark deal for reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support. The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) allows the militaries of the two countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, besides facilitating the scaling up of overall defence cooperation.
Second Ministerial Dialogue – AI, anti-drone warfare, shipbuilding
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles expressed satisfaction at the increasing military-to-military cooperation between the two countries, including joint exercises, exchanges and institutional dialogue. Both ministers underscored the importance of further enhancing cooperation in information exchange and maritime domain awareness between the two countries. The two sides are also in an advanced stage of discussion to conclude implementing arrangements on Hydrography Cooperation and cooperation for air-to-air refuelling.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh emphasised the need to look at cooperating in niche training areas such as Artificial Intelligence, anti-submarine and anti-drone warfare and the cyber domain. He suggested that shipbuilding, ship maintenance, and aircraft Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) could be the potential areas of collaboration
Rajnath Singh emphasised that the forces of the two countries should also look at cooperating in niche training areas such as Artificial Intelligence, anti-submarine and anti-drone warfare and cyber domain. He further suggested that shipbuilding, ship repair and maintenance and aircraft Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) could be the potential areas of collaboration. The two ministers also discussed cooperation for joint research in underwater technologies and collaboration between the defence start-ups of both countries.
India-Australia defence industry opportunities & challenges
In 2009, the Mahindra Group, an Indian private conglomerate, acquired majority stakes in two Australian companies, Aerostaff Australia and Gippsland Aeronautics, signalling the company’s global interest in the defence and aerospace sector. In 2019, India’s Kalyani group signed a teaming agreement with Thales Australia to bid for India’s procurement of close-quarter carbines.
Hawking Defence Services, a Chennai-based defence start-up, has signed two agreements with two separate Australian companies for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and small transport aircraft. On its part, several Australian companies such as Red Piranha, Memko, ANCA, Ferra and Thales Australia have marked their presence in India, with the latter having won an Indian naval contract in 2019 for the supply of eight mine countermeasure clip-on influence sweeps.
Dr Laxman Behera of the Special Centre for National Security Studies in JNU observed that there are opportunities as well as challenges in the India-Australia defence relationship. He noted that the defence industrial cooperation is still at a nascent stage wherein companies from both sides have started making forays into each other’s market, at a smaller scale and a slower pace. He noted that Australia could be a possible destination for Indian-made artillery guns, medium air-to-air (Akash) and air-to-air (Astra) missile systems, heavy-weight torpedoes, rocket launchers (Pinaka) and LCA trainer aircraft.
Australia could be a possible destination for Indian-made artillery guns, medium air-to-air (Akash) and air-to-air (Astra) missile systems, heavy-weight torpedoes, rocket launchers (Pinaka) and LCA trainer aircraft, says Dr Laxman Behera of the Special Centre for National Security Studies in JNU
The challenges come from both countries’ past geopolitical-driven defence procurement preferences. India had historically been dependent on the Soviet Union/Russia to meet the bulk of its arms requirement, while Australia had and continues to have, the West (especially the US) as the major supplier of defence equipment. The sheer size of Russian arms in the Indian inventory and the associated supply chain developed over the years will constrain the degree of cooperation that may be possible between Indian and Australian companies.
This was the second dialogue held amid the Israel-Hamas conflict wherein India articulated the position advocating for the resumption of direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine, living within secure and recognised borders side by side at peace with Israel. Australian foreign minister Penny Wong called for a renewed international effort to find a two-state solution to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, arguing that Israel can only find peace and security if it can do the same for Palestinians.
External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar observed that India urged for humanitarian assistance and observance of international humanitarian law. India sent two batches of aid, including medical and disaster relief to Palestine. India and Australia shared their observations on the issues of Israeli hostages without compromising on terrorism and also the rights and future of Palestinians realizable through the two-state solution.
Under the interim trade pact, Australia offers India zero-duty access to its market for about 96.4 per cent of exports (by value) from the day the agreement is in effect. And, India grants Australia preferential access to over 70 per cent of its tariff lines, including raw materials and intermediaries such as coal, mineral ores, and wines
China – ‘Biggest Security Anxiety’
In his opening remarks, the Australian Defence Minister said that China is the biggest trading partner and ‘biggest security anxiety’ for both Australia and India. His statement comes in light of an incident when a Chinese warship acted dangerously with an Australian navy vessel that injured a military diver. The HMAS Toowoomba – a long-range frigate – was conducting a diving operation in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone on November 14 to clear fishing nets from its propellers when the incident occurred. Australia’s government did express its serious concerns to China after the “unsafe and unprofessional” interaction.
Slow pace of CECA
Following the interim trade pact between India and Australia, the two countries have embarked on serious negotiations for a fuller CECA trade agreement. This will include some tough negotiations on sticky subjects like greater market access for India’s protectionist segments such as wine and agriculture products. Under the interim trade pact, Australia offers India zero-duty access to its market for about 96.4 per cent of exports (by value) from the day the agreement is in effect. Meanwhile, India grants Australia preferential access to over 70 per cent of its tariff lines, including raw materials and intermediaries such as coal, mineral ores, wines, etc.
The India-Australia relationship has matured into a ‘great deal of strategic trust’ and the ability to discuss sensitive issues upfront including the recent India-Canada diplomatic row and the Indian rejection of the Australian court’s jurisdiction in a judgment against a former Indian diplomat. The bilateral ties have indeed grown rapidly posing as a ‘factor of stability and security’ with larger implications in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s assertions have compelled countries in the region to reconfigure defence and security ties, such is the case of the India-Australia relationship which has of late, picked up the momentum.
-The writer is Assistant Professor, School of Law, Presidency University, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect that of Raksha Anirveda