international analysis and commentary

Beyond curry and cricket: the Australia-India relationship and the Indo-Pacific

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India’s Minister for trade and commerce Piyush Goyal described India and Australia as ‘brothers‘ as he and his Australian counterpart Dan Tehan concluded, earlier this year, a major trade deal between the two countries. It was India’s first trade deal with a major developed country in more than a decade – the last one being with Japan in 2011.

India’s Narendra Modi

When the deal was done, then Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison posted photos of himself in April cooking Indian-style curry and khichdi, a lentil soup. Morrison wrote: “To celebrate our new trade agreement with India, the curries I chose to cook for Curry Night tonight are all from my dear friend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Gujarat province, including his favourite Khichdi.” Trade between the two countries grew from around $13 billion in 2007 to more than $24 billion in 2020 and the new comprehensive trade agreement is designed to exponentially grow business.

This kind of bonhomie is regularly expressed in ties between the two Indian Ocean powers which, politicians and analysts agree, have never been closer.

Morrison’s successor, Anthony Albanese, in May described the relationship with India as a “very important one”. Within a month of the new government coming to power, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, landed in Delhi for talks especially on defense cooperation. Before arriving in India, Marles had said that despite opposition from China, Australia shall continue to monitor and exercise right of passage in the South China Sea, even while seeking to better ties with the Middle Kingdom. On India’s part, it continues its tough standoff against China in the high Himalayas on territorial contests, while participating in forums for dialogue, as evidenced, for instance, by Narendra Modi’s participation in the virtual BRICs gathering on June 23-24.

While the Quad – the grouping made up of the United States, India, Australia and Japan – continuously makes news, less is discussed about one of the most important relationships in that quartet: that between India and Australia.

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For long, India-Australia ties were said to be made up of two key ingredients – shared love for curry and cricket. Not any longer. Whether in military cooperation or energy ties, in technology exchange (for instance, Australia has announced that it will establish a Centre for Excellence for Critical and Emerging Technology Policy in India’s tech hub Bengaluru) and educational collaboration (the two countries have agreed to start dual degree programmes combining universities from India and Australia), the two democracies have never been closer in their history. And it is these two countries which are on the frontlines of the Quad pushing back against an assertive China in the Indian Ocean.

In recent years, the two countries have participated in as many as 10 bilateral exercises and 17 multilateral exercises in the domain of defense, one of the highest such engagement with a partner nation for both maritime powers. In 2020, Australia and India signed a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement that allowed reciprocal access to military logistics facilities. In the same year, the two countries upgraded their ties to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. Cooperation in defense – from aircraft sorties exercises, intelligence sharing and cooperation in technologies like drones has grown since then and continues to expand.

The two countries run not only a joint working group since 2018 between the Defense Research Development Organisation of India and the Defense Science and Technology Group in Australia, but also, from earlier this year, an armed forces officers exchange programme has been set up to develop deeper understanding and bilateral cooperation.

Whether it is developing a joint strategic research fund or announcing a range of new scholarships for Indian students looking to study in Australia (around 100,000 a year), or even the growing success of the Australia-India Youth Dialogue (AIYD – which has become perhaps the most successful public diplomacy initiative focussed on under 40-year-olds between any country and India), there is now bipartisan concurrence in both countries about the vital nature of ties.

Before the pandemic, India had become the second largest source of migrants to Australia, and the number has steadily increased as borders have reopened. Indians are now the second biggest diaspora community in Australia, surpassing China’s. Note, for instance, that while India and Japan have an enduring friendship too, the movement of people, and diaspora numbers, is nothing compared to what India and Australia share.

It was as recently as 2014 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Australia was the first official visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years to the country. Yet now, as the Australian ambassador to India Barry O’Farrell noted, “Current events in Europe serve to remind us of the profound strategic challenges and disruption the world is facing. The order that has supported peace and prosperity over decades is being challenged… Australia and India have accepted a shared responsibility to ensure a peaceful, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific. A region where the rights of all states are respected…”.

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The strategic glue that joins the two countries is clear, but Australia and India are going much further. There is a sense that India and Australia are working to build ties that deepen societal relations as democracies that invest in a common future encouraging greater people-to-people contact and mobility, and it is this commitment that could make it the most important relationship in the Indo-Pacific in the years to come.