Foreign Policy Watch: India-Australia

India should focus on Middle powers


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Five Power Defence Arrangement

Mains level : Paper 2- India-Australia relations, IORA

Let’s play a game. India and this country are both members of Commonwealth of nations. Cricket, English language and Nuclear relations is something common to both of us. In fact, India was this nation’s eighth-largest trading partner and fifth-largest export market in 2018-19. The Indian diaspora in this country is now third largest and fastest growing diaspora. Any guesses?

What is a middle power?

In international relations, a middle power is a sovereign state that is not a great power nor a superpower, but still has large or moderate influence and international recognition. The concept of the “middle power” dates back to the origins of the European state system.

Plugging the big gap in India’s diplomatic tradition

  • India remains preoccupied with the perennial challenges in its neighbourhood, resulting in missing out on the opportunities for productive partnerships with the middle powers.
  • Thursday’s virtual summit between Prime Minister of India and the Australian premier, Scott Morrison, is an important part of Delhi’s current diplomatic effort to plug that big gap in India’s diplomatic tradition.

Let’s see what opportunities Australia holds for India

  • Economic weight: With a GDP of more than US$1.4 trillion, Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world, following closely behind Russia which stands at $1.6 trillion.
  • Australia is rich in natural resources that India’s growing economy needs.
  • It also has huge reservoirs of strength in higher education, scientific and technological research.
  •  Its armed forces, hardened by international combat, are widely respected.
  • Canberra’s intelligence establishment is valued in many parts of the world.
  • Australia has deep economic, political and security connections with the ASEAN and a strategic partnership with one of the leading non-aligned nations, Indonesia.
  • Canberra has a little “sphere of influence” of its own — in the South Pacific (now under threat from Chinese penetration).
  • All these Australian strengths should be of interest and value to India.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, believed Australia is a natural part of Asia and invited it to participate in the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947, a few months before independence.

India’s nuclear test and it’s repercussions

  • A political dust-up between Delhi and Canberra in the wake of India’s nuclear tests in 1998 complicated the possibilities that the end of the Cold War opened up.
  • But since 2000, Canberra has taken consistent political initiative to advance ties with India by resolving the nuclear difference and expanding the template of engagement.

Comparing India and China’s approach to Middle powers

  • A gap of nearly three decades between Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Australia in 1986 and Modi’s trip in 2014 only underlines how short-sighted India’s neglect of Australia has been.
  • It was exactly in these years that China transformed its relationship with Australia.
  • Delhi’s temptation to judge nations on the basis of their alignments with other powers stands in contrast to Beijing.
  • Beijing puts interests above ideology, promotes interdependence with a targeted middle power, turns it into political influence and tries to weaken its alignment with the rival powers.

Growing India-Australia relations

  •  The Indian diaspora — now estimated at nearly 7,00,000— is the fastest growing in Australia and has become an unexpected positive factor in bilateral relations.
  • Common membership of many groupings like the G-20, East Asia Summit, IORA, and the Quad has increased the possibilities for diplomatic cooperation on regional and global issues.
  • Other host of emerging issues — from reforming the World Health Organisation to 5G technology and from strengthening the international solar alliance to building resilience against climate change and disasters — can lend to intensive bilateral political and institutional engagement.

Geopolitics and Security cooperation

  • The geopolitical churn in the Indo-Pacific, growing Chinese assertiveness and the uncertain US political trajectory open space for security cooperation.
  • Over the last few years, defence engagement between the two countries has grown.
  • Defence engagement is likely to be capped by a military logistics support agreement to be unveiled at the summit.
  • For future, there is a need from both security establishments to develop strategic coordination in the various sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific littoral.

Eastern Indian Ocean: top priority

  • The eastern Indian Ocean that lies between the shores of peninsular India and the west coast of Australia ought to be the top priority.
  • This is where Delhi and Canberra can initiate a full range of joint activities.
  • Joint activities should include maritime domain awareness, development of strategically located islands and marine scientific research.

Seeking trilateral cooperation with Indonesia

  • The sea lines of communication between the Indian and Pacific oceans run through the Indonesian archipelago.
  • Given the shared political commitment to the Indo-Pacific idea between Delhi, Jakarta and Canberra and the growing pressures on them to secure their shared waters, Modi and Morrison must seek trilateral maritime and naval cooperation with Indonesia.

Three other natural partners to expand cooperation

  • Besides Indonesia, three other powers present themselves as natural partners for India and Australia — Japan, France and Britain.
  • Tokyo has close ties with both Delhi and Canberra.
  • Their current trilateral dialogue can be expanded from the diplomatic level to practical maritime cooperation on the ground.
  • France is a resident power with territories in the Western Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.
  • Paris and Canberra are eager to develop a trilateral arrangement with Delhi that will supplement the bilateral cooperation among the three nations.

Engagement between India & EPDA

  • There is the less discussed role of Britain, which wants to return to the oriental seas.
  • In the east, Britain continues to lead the so-called Five Power Defence Arrangement set up back in 1971, after Britain pulled back most of its forces from the East of Suez.
  • The FPDA brings together the armed forces of the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Modi and Morrison must explore the possibilities for engagement between India and the FPDA.

Try a question:

India and Australia nuclear deal was a major breakthrough in the bilateral relation. But this bilateral partnership has so much more potential in other areas. Critically examine.


It is only by building a series of overlapping bilateral and minilateral platforms for regional security cooperation that Delhi and Canberra can limit the dangers of the growing geopolitical imbalance in the Indo-Pacific.

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