5 minute read

The China (Dis)Connect in India-Australia Partnership

The China (Dis)Connect in India-Australia Partnership China has continued to capture the foreign policy imagination of India and Australia for long. Both New Delhi and Canberra had been pursuing a “China appeasement” policy for the last one decade or so, if not for longer, primarily with a view to stay connected with Beijing whose global economic influence was growing in the fast-changing global order. But recently this notion has witnessed a serious setback. The COVID-19 pandemic and China’s increasing military posturing in the India- China land border as well as in the South and East China Seas have forced the two countries to revisit their respective national thinking and ask: Is there really a need for a “China connect”policy that is drawn on an appeasement outlook?

Staying connected with China is a strategic prerequisite for India and Australia in a globalised and interdependent world. However, this should not compel them into an appeasement mode. Even though China is the largest trading partner of Australia, and a ‘developmental partner’ for India, such economic connection should not induce any compromise or appeasement on part of India and Australia. Beijing have failed to address the rising trade imbalance with India while it has penetrated to Australia’s educational and strategic environment through non-transparent investment and stronger economic connection. Therefore, rather than appeasement, the new terms of engagement must be based on transparency, reciprocity and respect for sovereignty and free-thinking–something would make China wary. And two recent events –China’s military clash against India in the Galwan valley in Ladakh and its threats in the grab of economic coercion to Australiain response to Australia demanding an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 – seems to have induced an alternative thinking in New Delhi and Canberra for newer forms of engagement.

Though New Delhi and Canberra are yet to have a shared outlook on China, their respective China policies, of late, have offered glimpses of anti-China tendencies: potential expansion of the Group of 7 (G-7) with India as a member and acceptance of the “Quad Plus” format and revisiting its “power-partner” contention with China, all signal towards a major security-driven shift in New Delhi’s China outlook. Meanwhile, Sino-Australian ties are at an “all-time low”, with China placing tariffs on Australian barley and banning beef from major Australian exporters. This trajectory has served as a “wakeup call” for Canberra with Prime Minister Morrison stating that the country will not be “intimidated” by China, its largest trading partner.

Xi Jinping’s China is a businessoriented neo-mercantilist power that prioritizes its own national interests. The values of freedoms, critical thinking, respect for others’ sovereignty and territorial integrity have little relevance in Chinese foreign policy calculations under Xi Jinping. China’s aggressive maritime-military posturing in the Indo-Pacific region is a manifestation of this view point. Beijing has also been successful to some extent in constraining the respective maritime interests of both India and Australia.

The values of freedoms, critical thinking, respect for others’ sovereignty and territorial integrity have little relevance in Chinese foreign policy calculations under Xi Jinping.

In this context, the rapidly transforming strategic scenario in the Indo-Pacificshould be enough to encourage India and Australia to develop a common or shared outlook on China. For that purpose two questions need answer: What is the common thread that binds India and Australia vis-a-vis China in the Indo-Pacific? And, is it necessary that China be the common bridge connecting the two countries in the Indo-Pacific?

First, China could well emerge as a key driver for galvanizing India-Australia ties. Yet, the India-Australia partnership does not necessarily have to be China-centric. That is, they could enhance their partnership without necessarily invoking China. India is already Australia’s “significant security partner”. At the June 2020 virtual summit, India and Australia initiated a “process of comprehensive reforms” covering issues such as cybersecurity, maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, education and vocational training, as well as signed two major defence arrangements – namely, the Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement. The two arrangements and their “Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” reflect the countries’“strong commitment to practical global cooperation”.

Another second, strong bilateral complementarities are emerging in military modernization, particularly in the areas of defence cybersecurity and military infrastructure building. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) initiative that encourages self-reliance in the defence sector could provide impetus to Australia becoming a defence partner through collaborative ventures with Australian defence firms.In the economic sphere, both have agreed to renew negotiations on the Australia- India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). They could also collaborate on developing the Blue Economy projects for the Indian Ocean littoral states.

And third, in spite of practising diplomatic correctness, both sides cannot assuage Beijing’s own beliefs that the emerging Indo-Pacific stratagem has a dominant China factor driving it. For instance, India and Australia have recently also decided to upgrade the existing “2+2” dialogue to the ministerial level, lending political heft to the strategic talks.In addition, due to increasing Chinese coercive activities in the South China Sea, India is also planning to invite Australia for the Malabar exercise, which would expand the maritime ventures of the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (or Quad) comprising India, Australia, Japan and the US.Further, if India decides to join the US-Japan- Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN) – perceived as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative – it would promote an alternative global supply chains and quality infrastructure network in Asia. The BDN will strengthen a “free and open” Indo-Pacific outlook that Quad countries promote, while the conjectural “Quad Plus” grouping will help bolster the alignment structures.

Thus, the new momentum in India-Australia ties based on common interests, shared values of democracy and the rule of law. Trilateral and quadrilateral mechanisms with “like-minded” partners and policy convergence marks their emerging “comprehensive” nature. Not only that, it may further help synergize a common action-oriented outlook vis-a-vis China in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator, East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.

Dr Jagannath Panda