After five decades of testy or distant strategic relations, India and Australia began in the early 2000s to forge an increasingly cooperative defence and security partnership. The primary drivers were similar concerns about China’s rise, behaviour, and assertiveness, as well as converging views about the regional strategic landscape.
Today, the bilateral relationship between India and Australia is far broader and more cooperative than it has been at any time in history. India has become Australia’s fifth-largest export destination (up from twelfth at the turn of the century), and Australia is now a top-20 trade partner for India. There is also growing political cooperation, including in multilateral institutions such as the Commonwealth, G20, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). For example, in IORA, India and Australia coordinated closely in establishing the secretariat in Mauritius, and in working with Indonesia during its chairmanship of the organisation in 2015–2016. India’s nuclear status is now a non-issue following the mainstreaming of its program, the lifting by Australia of its uranium ban, and the India–Australia civilian nuclear agreement. And people-to-people contacts have widened, with large numbers of Indian tourists, students, and immigrants contributing to Australia’s economy and society.
The Australia–India defence relationship now encompasses almost every major area of military partnership, namely (i) strategic dialogues, coordination, and intelligence exchanges, including those involving third countries; (ii) military exercises involving ground, air, and especially maritime forces that reflect a growing degree of interoperability; (iii) military-to-military exchanges and training; and (iv) defence commerce and technological cooperation. However, all four areas, and especially the last, are at a nascent stage of partnership with considerable room for improvement.
Defence policy planning and dialogues are at the senior-most level, represented by regular meetings of the two countries’ defence ministers, as well as annual meetings of the foreign ministers. Defence policy talks, which “used to be hard going” according to a senior Australian defence official, have become easier. Additionally, the 2+2 dialogue, initiated in 2017 involving the foreign and defence secretaries of the two countries, has subsequently been upgraded to the ministerial level. This mirrors a format that India and Australia have with both the United States and Japan. In terms of military dialogues, staff talks involving all three services take place regularly. A maritime security operations working group has also been established. At a more tactical level, improvements have been made in maritime domain awareness (MDA) following the two countries’ White Shipping Agreement. This has resulted in inputs six times each day into India’s maritime ‘information fusion centre’ tracking merchant vessels.
There is also enthusiasm for greater minilateral cooperation, such as the Australia–India–Japan and Australia–India–Indonesia trilateral dialogues (recently upgraded to a ministerial conversation). These represent what an Australian defence official has described as the region’s “thickening architecture”. India–Australia–Japan trilateral engagement represents the growth of a complementary middle power-led strategic architecture that hedges against US retrenchment from the Indo–Pacific. In September 2020, an India-France-Australia dialogue was also initiated, involving three capable resident maritime states in the Indian Ocean, at the level of foreign secretaries. Both India and Australia also take part jointly, with occasional coordination, in a host of regional and global forums. These include IORA, the G20, and the ASEAN-led groups — the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM–Plus), and the East Asia Summit (EAS). Newer, issue-based groupings involving both India and Australia have also emerged in 2020, including on 5G telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and supply chain resilience. The latter is an issue on which the governments of India and Australia, along with Japan, have taken a lead.
The Quad has been the subject of significant attention. Having met once in 2007 and several times after being resurrected in 2017, the dialogue was a low-level foreign ministry mechanism that served the purpose of political signalling in the region and was meant to improve coordination among these like-minded states. It was later elevated to a foreign minister-level engagement, although a proposed defence minister-led quadrilateral dialogue has yet to take place. While India made it clear that it wanted to de-link this dialogue from the Malabar naval exercises (nominally a bilateral India–US naval exercise to which Japan is a permanent invitee), Australia has made repeated requests to participate in Malabar as an observer. While Indian concerns related primarily to efforts at strengthening two parallel initiatives — the quadrilateral dialogue among the foreign ministries and the Malabar naval exercise — growing signs of Australia’s commitment have increased the prospect of a return to quadrilateral naval exercises in the near future. In the meantime, the Quad has formed the basis for other avenues of official consultation, especially following the global coronavirus pandemic. These have included a foreign secretary-level dialogue involving the United States, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam (as chair of ASEAN) and a ministerial conversation involving the United States, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, and Israel.
Enhanced military engagement
Beyond consultations and institutional collaboration, military exercises and engagements have proliferated. Overall, by the reckoning of the Australian government, there has been an increase from 11 defence exercises, meetings, and activities in 2014 to 29 in 2017, and 38 in 2018. Naval engagement has been the most advanced, as is to be expected. The main bilateral exercise, AUSINDEX, was held every two years between 2015 and 2019. The 2019 edition of the exercise was particularly significant, representing a great degree of complexity and Australia’s largest ever defence deployment to India. Linked to Australia’s largest naval deployment, Indo–Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPE 19), the exercise involved four ships, Australian Army forces, and support personnel from all three services, with a total involvement of more than 1000 Australian personnel. The ships visited Chennai and Visakhapatnam and included both Indian and Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, as well as submarines from the two countries in sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercises. Of additional significance was the fact that US military personnel were observers in this exercise.
While AUSINDEX remains the mainstay of naval engagement, other efforts have been complementary. The Royal Australian Navy has been a regular participant (initially as an observer) in the Milan exercises since the early 2000s, including in the 2018 edition off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 2018, for the first time, the Indian Navy took part in Australia’s multilateral Kakadu exercise in Darwin. And the same year, India took part as an observer in a submarine rescue exercise Black Carillon off Western Australia. Both countries have also been involved in third country-led exercises, notably the United States’ Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium Multilateral Sea Exercise (WMSX) in the Singapore Strait and South China Sea. Australia’s involvement in allied operations in the Middle East and counter-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean as part of Combined Task Force 150 have also provided opportunities for engagement with India, including regular port visits.
While not at the same frequency of contact, air force engagement has also increased. A major threshold was crossed with the Indian Air Force’s first involvement as a full participant (rather than an observer) in the Pitch Black exercise in Darwin in 2018. A multilateral exercise involving air forces from several Australian ally and partner countries, India deployed four Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters, a C-17 heavy transport, and a C-130 tactical transport aircraft. The exercise was additionally significant for staging the first mid-air refuelling of an Indian combat aircraft (Su-30MKI) by an Australian aircraft (KC-30A), revealing a much greater degree of coordination than had been demonstrated previously. Beyond exercises, subject matter expert exchanges involving flight controllers and safety and security have also taken place.
Army-to-army engagement is perhaps the least developed between the two countries. In 2017 and 2018, the second and third editions of AUSTRA HIND, a Special Forces exercise, were held. Additionally, efforts at countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) involving the two armies was jointly organised in India in 2018. The possibility of desert warfare exercises, as well as Indian participation in a longstanding Australian jungle warfare school, have also been proposed.
Going beyond exercises
Exercises are not the only reflection of interoperability, and a number of agreements have been finalised to improve the ability of the two militaries to work together. This began with an agreement on the protection of classified information. A mutual logistics supply agreement (MLSA) — a “high priority” according to Australian officials — was postponed due to changes in ministerial positions but eventually concluded in 2020 during the virtual summit between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Scott John Morrison. The agreement facilitates opportunities for both militaries to resupply each other, potentially extending their operational reach. A secure communications agreement would represent the next logical step in bilateral security cooperation, particularly following the conclusion of a similar agreement between India and the United States.
Military-to-military contacts have also increased. Senior Australian military officers take part in the year-long course at the National Defence College in New Delhi, as well as at the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Tamil Nadu, and the Indian Navy’s National Institute of Hydrography. The number of Indian participants in the Australian Command and Staff College in Canberra has been increased from two to three, along with an Indian student at the Australian Defence College in Canberra. Australia’s National Security College has also made a concerted bid to attract Indian public servants for courses. Cadet exchanges have become more routine.
The two militaries also benefit from a growing number of shared platforms, increasing the opportunities for joint training and interoperability. These include C-17 strategic transport aircraft, C-130 tactical aircraft, P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. Australian armed services have also provided classified briefings to the Indian military of potential future platforms, such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.
Defence industrial cooperation — an area that India prioritises given its own equipment requirements — offers limited potential. A Joint Working Group on Defence Research and Materiel Cooperation meeting between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) met in 2018. Among other issues, India has expressed interest in certain Australian defence products, including the Bushmaster and Hawkei armoured mobility vehicles, maritime training simulators, mobile health stations, and water purifiers. Australia also has considerable expertise in radar and undersea technologies. The acquisition of diesel submarines from France by both India and Australia offers some opportunities for long-term technical collaboration between the three countries in that domain.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute, and Director of the US Initiative at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Views are personal.
This is an edited excerpt from the author’s report, which was first published by the Lowy Institute.