(Updated with a geopolitical analyst comment in para 6)
New Delhi: India and Australia today upgraded their strategic ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, and signed military logistics and defence science and technology agreements in an effort to build on their tactical intent to work closely in the Indo-Pacific region, a move that could easily rile a suspicious China.
To make matters worse for China, the two Indo-Pacific nations also announced that they would work together in ensuring “rules-based maritime order” in the region, an euphemism that refers to Beijing disregarding the international laws of the seas and its aggressive posturing on territorial claims in the South China Sea.
India and China are currently engaged in a battle of wits along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border, in the Ladakh region for a month now, with the People’s Liberation Army troopers frequently breaching the border protocols that are in place since 1993.
The ‘Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support‘ (MLSA) and ‘Implementing Arrangement concerning cooperation in Defence Science and Technology to the MoU on Defence Cooperation‘ were among the nine bilateral cooperation documents signed following a discussion at a virtual summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
India has previously signed logistics support agreement, called Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, with the United States in 2016 under which the two nations’ military assets such as warships will receive reciprocal cashless supplies while docked at each other’s port. The two nations have also pursued the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) since 2012 for cooperation on military technology joint development and production. The two nations, along with Japan, hold an annual trilateral naval exercise, Malabar, in which Australia has previously participated.
“The only things that remain to be done are the formation of the QUAD and inviting Australia for the annual multilateral exercise Malabar comprising of India, US and Japan. This is obvious given the prevailing circumstances post COVID-19,” said Captain D. K. Sharma (Retired), a former spokesperson for the Indian Navy with vast experience in watching the geopolitics in the maritime domain.
Modi and Morrison also decided to announce a ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region‘ to “harness opportunities and meet challenges together” as ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partners‘.
The Joint Declaration reads as follows:
“India and Australia reiterate their commitment to promoting peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, which is vital for the world. As two key Indo-Pacific countries, India and Australia have an enduring interest in a free, open, inclusive and rules based Indo-Pacific region. They have a shared interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region, and maintaining open, safe and efficient sea lanes for transportation and communication. With a shared maritime geography and a deep and long-standing friendship, India and Australia are natural partners to work together towards realisation of this shared vision.
“India and Australia are committed to supporting a rules-based maritime order that is based on respect for sovereignty and international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“India and Australia have common concerns regarding the strategic, security and environmental challenges in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain. These include activities and actions in the maritime domain that are inconsistent with international law, particularly UNCLOS, including terrorism, piracy, drugs and arms smuggling, irregular migration, people smuggling, trafficking in human beings, poaching of marine species, narcotics trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The region’s environmental challenges, such as marine pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, shortage of potable water, loss of habitat due to storm surges and saline water intrusion, are also of shared concern.
“India and Australia share a strong bilateral relationship, underpinned by ongoing cooperation across many areas of mutual interest. This cooperation includes the Australia-India Framework for Security Cooperation, regular dialogues involving Ministers responsible for foreign, defence and trade policy, and a broad range of senior officials meetings, such as the Defence Policy Talks, Australia-India Maritime Dialogue and Navy to Navy Staff Talks.
“India and Australia will work together bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally, and in minilateral arrangements, to support regional architecture in line with their shared values and interests. India and Australia reiterate their commitment to ASEAN centrality and unity and will strengthen their coordination in regional and multilateral fora, such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and the International Maritime Organization, to achieve their shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. India and Australia welcome the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
“In this context, India and Australia will work closely to develop, with all interested partners, the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 14th East Asia Summit on 4 November 2019 at Bangkok. Through this Initiative, they will endeavour to improve the management of the shared oceanic domains, including in key areas of cooperation such as preserving the maritime ecology and reducing the impact of marine pollution (especially plastics); maritime security; sustainable use of marine resources; capacity building and resource sharing; disaster risk reduction and management; science, technology and academic cooperation; and trade, connectivity and maritime transport.
“Recognising that India and Australia have a shared interest in promoting maritime security and safety, they will deepen navy-to-navy cooperation and strengthen maritime domain awareness in the Indo-Pacific region through enhanced exchange of information. Both countries will also work to enhance civil maritime cooperation between law enforcement agencies and coast guard cooperation.
“Given the importance they attach to ensuring sustainable use of living and non-living marine resources in the Indo-Pacific region, in accordance with international law, they commit to protecting the Indo-Pacific marine environment and reducing the impact of marine pollution, particularly plastics, and climate change.
“India and Australia will work jointly towards implementation of an Action Plan with specific measures to advance their bilateral maritime cooperation in line with this Vision.”