On 4 June 2020, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi held a ‘virtual bilateral summit’ with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. The ‘India-Australia Leaders’ Summit’ was earlier scheduled to be held in January this year but was postponed on account of the bushfire crisis in Australia. Later it was scheduled for May but with the worldwide spread of the Covid-19 pandemic both the countries decided to conduct the summit ‘virtually’. This was the first ‘bilateral virtual summit’ which PM Modi hosted. Earlier, India had taken the lead in hosting the virtual SAARC summit and participating in an extraordinary virtual G20 meeting. The most significant outcome of the ‘bilateral virtual summit’ with Australia is the elevation of Australia-India relationship from ‘Strategic Partnership’ since 2009 to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) based on “mutual understanding, trust, common interest and shared values of democracy and rule of law”.[i]
Despite normative commonalities, ties between India and Australia remained distant for much of the 20th century but now a considerable alignment in strategic interests is increasingly becoming apparent. The bilateral relationship has been on an upswing in recent years with frequent high-level interactions.Reciprocal Prime Ministerial visits in 2014 set the tone for re-energising the relationship. PM Narendra Modi’s visit in 2014 was the first visit by an Indian PM to Australia in 28 years. In 2018, President Ram NathKovind made the first-ever Head of State’s level visit from India to Australia. Apart from various existing mechanisms for senior official bilateral interactions, during the recent Summit, both the leaders notably agreed to have ‘2+2’ format meetings at the Foreign and Defence Ministers level at least once every two years.[ii]
India and Australia are two crucial players in the Indo-Pacific region with strategic geographical locations, India centrally located in the Indian Ocean and Australia at the juncture of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. India’s reinvigorated ‘Act East’ policy, focussing on its extended eastern neighbourhood, has brought Australia into India’s ambit of interest in a more focused way. On the other hand, as Australia looks forward to adopting the Indo-Pacific world view, it has stressed on relations with its western neighbourhood especially India.
In the strategic sphere, the two countries have reiterated their ‘shared vision of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific, emphsizing freedom of navigation, over-flight, peaceful resolution of disputes rather than through unilateral or coercive actions’ and respect for international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).In a telephonic conversation in April 2020, the two Prime Ministers discussed the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and also agreed to remain “attentive to the wider significance of the India-Australia partnership, including in the Indo-Pacific region”.[iii]
The newly appointed Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell said before the Summit that “it’s as crucial for like-minded democracies and important partners like Australia and India to work together to shape the present as also the post-COVID world”.[iv]
With their shared maritime geography, the growing security relationship between the two countries will inevitably be spearheaded by maritime cooperation. For both Canberra and New Delhi, their security and prosperity are intrinsically linked to their surrounding waters. A significant Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was announced at the Summit, recognising that “many of the future challenges are likely to occur in, and emanate from the maritime domain”.[v] The vision document highlights that the two countries will work together “bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally to support regional architecture in line with their shared values and interests”.[vi] Reiterating commitment to ASEAN centrality, both countries also welcomed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
Bilateral naval exercises between the two countries have become more complex over the years; the latest AUSINDEX-2019 conducted in Vishakhapatnam was the most intense till date, with a focus on anti-submarine warfare. Australia-India Maritime Dialogue is being held regularly, with the fourth round taking place in Canberra in 2018. Australia is willing to work with India, and other interested partners in the region, in taking forward the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) announced by PM Modi at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2019. Therefore, an increasing convergence of interests in the maritime realm, offers scope for deepening bilateral cooperation to secure the global commons and cooperatively support economic prosperity. Key focus areas include ‘strengthen maritime domain awareness, maritime security, sustainable use of marine resources; preserving maritime ecology, disaster prevention and management, capacity-building, marine scientific and technology research, trade, connectivity and maritime transport’.[vii]
The much-awaited agreement on Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support (MLSA) was signed during the summit. MLSA will boost defence cooperation between the two countries by enhancing military interoperability through exercises and allowing access to military bases for logistics support. The agreement may allow a possibility for India and Australia to use each other’s strategically located island territories i.e. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands closer to Malacca strait and Australia’s Cocos Islands located in the Indian Ocean in close proximity to Lombok, Sunda and Makassar Straits.[viii] It will enhance their joint capacity particularly in maritime domain awareness. Further, to facilitate growing collaboration between defence research organisations of both countries, an Implementing Arrangement concerning cooperation in Defence Science and Technology was signed.
As strategic partners, Australia and India are willing to work together to shape a prosperous, open and stable multilateral regional order post-COVID.[ix] In the past, notwithstanding positive developments in the bilateral relationship, there was some political ambivalence on both sides, particularly when it came to playing an active role to build a stable regional order. This is in part because of the differing attitude of India and Australia towards the US in regional affairs and towards shaping responses to China’s behavior. India has been cautious about Australia’s strategic commitment to the region.
However, the pandemic is giving new shape to geopolitical equations in the world. As the virus rages the world, the tension between the US and China has been escalating. As anti-China sentiment rises in the wake of the pandemic, Japan and South Korea have supported some of their firms moving production out of China. Amidst all this Beijing’s continued military activity in the South China Sea have Southeast Asian countries worried, which are busy battling the pandemic.
Australia and China have also been involved in ‘war of words ‘on the issue of virus, as Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origin of the virus.[x], to which Beijing reacted strongly calling Australia’s actions ‘politically motivated’ and threatening a boycott of Australian products. Tightening trade barriers, China announced a ban on select Australian beef imports and placed 80% tariff on Australian barley. Many ‘sore points’ have emerged in Australia-China relations in recent times. Earlier, Australia banned Chinese telecommunications giant from involvement in its planned 5G network and also criticised China’s meddling in Australia’s domestic politics and Beijing’s recent proactive stance in its neighbourhood i.e. South Pacific. China is the largest trading partner for Australia accounting for 24% of Australia’s global trade. An escalation of current tension may result in Australia possibly losing billions of dollars every year.
On the other hand, the virtual summit also comes at a time when India and China are in a situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakhregion for a month now. The regional geopolitical environment has already been undergoing unprecedented transformation; the pandemic has accelerated that change. India and Australia with their growing trade and closer security cooperation and their engagement with other like-minded regional players will play a significant role in determining the regional balance of power.
India and Australia’s presence in many multilateral and plurilateral platforms like the G20, EAS, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Quad provides opportunity for diplomatic cooperation with key regional partners on regional and global issues.[xi] Quad has been elevated to foreign ministers level; in addition, there has been a lot of talk about the Quad Plus. Earlier this month a telephonic conversation at the Foreign Secretary level was held among select Indo-Pacific countries including India, Australia, Japan, the US, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and Vietnam to share ideas and best practices in synergizing their efforts in tackling the pandemic.[xii]With the progress of the Quad, there is also a possibility of India expanding the Malabar exercises to include Australia. India till now has reportedly resisted accepting Australia’s repeated requests to join the trilateral naval exercise along with India, US and Japan, to avoid signalling a ‘military alliance’ against China.
With the changing geopolitical realities, US President Donald Trump is planning to have an expanded G7 meeting later this year for which he has extended an invitation to both India and Australia. An expanded G7 will bring in ‘more middle powers together’[xiii]in shaping the multilateral order. Earlier Australia and India had also participated as observers in the 2019 annual G7 meeting on French President’s invitation.
At the same time, Australia and India need to focus more on existing trilateral dialogues with strategic partners including Indonesia and Japan for building more practical cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The possibility of trilateral arrangement with France can be explored.[xiv] France which has overseas territories in the Indian Ocean as also in the Pacific, of late has been keen on enhancing partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. Speaking at the Garden Island, in Sydney in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron had suggested “a new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis as a key for the region with joint objectives in the Indian-Pacific region.”17
On the economic front, as the pandemic results in economies looking inwards focussing more on self-reliance, at the same time countries are also looking to diversify their trade relations with trusted partners. As Australia looks to reduce its dependence on China, India’s expanding economy powered by the growing digitally enabled middle class and a young population offers significant opportunities. India is Australia’s fifth largest trading partner and the two way trade has increased significantly over the years.India’s growing energy requirement provides an important market for Australian coal, LNG and uranium. The agreement signed on ‘mining and processing critical minerals’ like antimony, cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements[xv] is an example of growing trade and investment ties. India also contributes significantly in terms of immigrants, tourists and is the second largest source of international students to Australia. The Indian diaspora of nearly 7,00,000, constituting 3% of Australia’s population, is an asset that needs to be leveraged in strengthening the bilateral relationship. By furthering economic cooperation the two countries can work together towards safe and sustained economic recovery post-COVID.
Other emerging areas that the two counties can coordinate efforts include reform of the World Health Organization (WHO), cooperation in the field of public health, and commitment to a rules-based multilateral trading system, reforming and strengthening the World Trade Organization (WTO). An agreement was also signed for promoting ‘cyber and critical technology cooperation’ in a secure manner, areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics present significant opportunities.[xvi]South Pacific region is also another important area where the two countries can coordinate their efforts under Australia’s ‘Pacific Step Up’ policy and India’s Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).
The Modi-Morrison Summit therefore, is a landmark in many ways in strengthening the bilateral relationship.By upgrading the relationship to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, India and Australia are signalling thatthe ambivalence of the past is fading and both countries appear ready to play an active role in structuring the regional balance of power to a stable multipolar order.
[i] Joint Statement on a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Republic of India and Australia, June 04, 2020,https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32729/Joint_Statement_on_a_Comprehensive_Strategic_Partnership_between_Republic_of_India_and_Australia
[ii] I. bid.
[iii] Telephone Conversation between PM and Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, 06 April 2020, https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32617/Telephone_Conversation_between_PM_and_Prime_Minister_of_the_Commonwealth_of_Australia
[iv] India and Australia ties at a 'historical high point': Australian envoy, 01 Jun 2020, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/india-and-australia-ties-at-a-historical-high-point-australian-envoy-11591014255183.html
[v] Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Between the Republic of India and the Government of Australia, June 04, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/32730/Joint_Declaration_on_a_Shared_Vision_for_Maritime_Cooperation_in_the_IndoPacific_Between_the_Republic_of_India_and_the_Government_of_Australia
[viii]History repeating: Australian military power in the Cocos Islands, https://theconversation.com/history-repeating-australian-military-power-in-the-cocos-islands-4484
[ix]I. bid. No. 1
[x]Marise Payne , Twitter, https://twitter.com/dfat/status/1251757189154385920
[xi]C. Raja Mohan, “Modi-Morrison summit can help plug a gap in India’s diplomatic tradition”, 04 June 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-narendra-modi-australia-scott-morrison-virtual-summit-c-raja-mohan-6441370/
[xii] Cooperation among select countries of the Indo-Pacific in fighting COVID-19 pandemic, May 14, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32691/Cooperation_among_select_countries_of_the_IndoPacific_in_fighting_COVID19_pandemic
[xiii]IndraniBagchi, “A new order: When the world emerges from the pandemic, we'll wake up to a new multilateral order”, 07 June 2020,https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/a-new-order-when-the-world-emerges-from-the-pandemic-well-wake-up-to-a-new-multilateral-order/articleshow/76237429.cms
[xiv] I. bid. no. 11
[xv]Barry O FARRELL, How India and Australia have elevated their ties, 04 June 2020,
[xvi]Australia and India agree new partnership on cyber and critical technology, Media release, 04 June 2020, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/australia-and-india-agree-new-partnership-cyber-and-critical-technology