Indian Ocean Region

The Need for India-Australia Maritime Cooperation

27 Aug, 2014    ·   4629

Teshu Singh writes why the onus of building greater cooperation between India and Australia in the Indian Ocean Region, is on New Delhi

Teshu Singh
Teshu Singh
Senior Research Officer
Though India and Australia have a long history of interactions and cooperation at various international fora, the potential for cooperation in the Indian Ocean is yet to materialise. What can New Delhi and Canberra do to actualise the potential of the bilateral vis-à-vis matters pertaining to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)?

Indian Ocean: The Australian Push
Australia has been an active player in the IOR in the past two years. Australia hosted two extremely important meetings, the Indian Ocean Region-Association (IORA) Summit  in November 2013 and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), titled ‘Protecting the ability to trade in the Indian Ocean Maritime Economy’, in March 2014.

The 2009 Australian defence white paper assessed that the Indian Ocean will assume strategic significance in the forthcoming years, and would be as important as the Pacific. Furthermore, their most recent defence white paper, released in 2013, stated that “the cooperation with Indian as crucial.” This was followed by the release of a strategy document on India thereby indicating the orientation of the Australian maritime policy. Notably, these developments have come at a time when the concept of the Indo-Pacific is gaining traction in the strategic circle. Primarily, the Indo-Pacific concept unites the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean and is premised on the idea of stronger security cooperation among regional powers. 

Australia and the Indian Ocean: Indian Responses So Far
Australia forms the part of India’s extended neighbourhood, and has become important for the success of New Delhi’s ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP). India and Australia have together already participated in several multilateral maritime exercises, namely Malabar (2007) and Milan (2012). Additionally, to enhance defence cooperation, both countries have agreed to hold a joint naval exercise in 2015. Retrospectively, both countries have been working together in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Ade, and during the international fleet review INS Sahyadri, had taken part and are members of IORA, IONS, and the Indian Ocean Memorandum of Understanding on Port Sate Control.

Additionally, the foreign ministers of both countries, along with their Indonesian counterpart, have, under the IORA banner, published a joint Op Ed. This clearly indicates that the interest for the revival of maritime cooperation still exists in the region. However, the aforementioned endeavours are miniscule and there is not much bilateral maritime cooperation between the two countries. Despite, Australia having second-largest navy after India, there have not been many interactions between the two navies.

The MH370 flight incident has proved that all the IOR countries can cooperate well if there is a direction and a common agenda. During the rescue operations, Australia was quite proactive as compared to other countries; India was equally involved. India has immense maritime presence in the IOR and is looked upon as a regional ‘net security provider’. For that reason, India needs to foster regional connectivity. The IORA, IONS and other Indian Ocean initiatives should be seen along with the India’s LEP. 

Perhaps India can use Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s India visit, scheduled for September, as a platform to discuss the India- Australia maritime cooperation. Today, the IOR has transformed from a ‘passageway’ to a ‘theatre’. Keeping the evolving regional geopolitics in mind, it is not possible for a single power to take the responsibility for the security of the region. Therefore, it is imperative for India to cooperate with Australia to set the agenda for improving overall security in the region. The two countries should devise a long-term proposal so that external powers have minimum role to play in the region.

Australia has already factored India’ importance in its defence white paper but New Delhi has not reciprocated to it. India still does not have a political doctrine wherein it has given emphasis to Australia vis-a-vis the IOR. In a recently held conference at the Australia-India Institute, David Brewster, an expert on the subject emphasised that India should develop closer relations with countries such as Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.

From the Australian side, although 90 per cent of their own trade passes through the region, its policies in the IOR are greatly influenced by the framework of its alliance with the US. 

Needless to mention, there is plethora of opportunities for the two countries vi-a-vis the IOR. There should be more people-to-people contact, naval exercises, Human Assistance and Disaster Relief, search and rescue operations, joint maritime patrolling and joint investments in the IOR. Now the onus is on India and Australia to lead the maritime cooperation in the IOR.