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Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral essential for Indo-Pacific stability

The Indo-Pacific regional architecture is evolving in response to rising strategic uncertainties. New bilateral, trilateral and plurilateral combinations and permutations are forming as regional states hedge against escalating US-China rivalries and China’s assertive irredentism. With the attendant challenges for ASEAN centrality and relevance, amidst increasing Sino-US tensions, the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (United States, Japan, Australia and India) envisaged by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, has waxed and waned. Induced by the fluid strategic environment and the Quad’s periodic setbacks due to individual member sensitivities, the Australia, India and Indonesia trilateral grouping has gained currency, complementing the broad objectives of the Quad inter alia, to curb authoritarian conduct and coercive behaviour, and preserve the rules-based order. This trilateral grouping also builds upon a three-way bilateral relationship between India-Indonesia, India-Australia and Australia-Indonesia. It melds three mutually complementary visions, namely India’s ‘Act East’ policy, Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-up’ and 2020 Defence Strategic Update, and the key tenets of Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ (GMF). India’s opportunity to elevate Act East Policy India sees the trilateral as a great opportunity to elevate its Act East policy—based on the three pivots of commerce, culture and connectivity—to a new level and implement the seven-point Indo-Pacific Vision that PM Modi articulated at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, and vision SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region). It adds ballast to Australia’s 2018 Pacific-Step Up to address challenges related to states’ sovereignty and regional stability, security and prosperity. Similarly, Indonesia’s 2014 GMF affirmed Indonesia’s vital interests as an archipelagic state at the crossroads of contending major power interests. The GMF prioritised the strengthening of the regional architecture to prevent the hegemony of major powers and committed Indonesia to comprehensive maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean, including through the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller

India-Indonesia ties, dating back two millennia, form the basis of a contemporary US$ 21 billion trading relationship. India is the largest buyer of coal and crude palm oil from Indonesia, which is expected to grow further following tensions with Malaysia over former PM Mahathir Muhammad’s critical statements on the scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act by the Narendra Modi government. At the heels of 30 Indian joint ventures and investments in Indonesia, PM Modi and President Joko Widodo elevated bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2018 leading to 15 agreements in various fields, including health, defence, railways, science, space and technology. Both leaders have met four times since 2016, in addition to regular ministerial dialogues and parliamentary exchanges. They have established ministerial level joint mechanisms in foreign policy, defence and security dialogue, as well as joint working groups in counter-terrorism, narcotics, oil and gas, new and renewable energy, coal and agriculture among others. Indonesia seeks to deepen its cooperation with India in hedging against China and in preserving regional peace and maritime security, the latter particularly in its Exclusive Economic Zone. Tensions with Malaysia also make Indonesia an ideal partner for meeting India’s crude palm oil needs. The Australia-Indonesia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was also reached around the same time, in August 2018. Augmenting the 2006 Lombok security Treaty, it is based on five pillars: enhancing economic and development partnership; connecting people; securing their own and the region's shared interests and maritime cooperation; and contributing to Indo-Pacific stability and prosperity. The economic and people-to-people components of the partnership are built on the strong defence and security elements of the bilateral relationship. It also provided further recognition of Australia and Indonesia’s growing convergence in strategic outlooks as two significant regional middle powers. Indeed, a comparison between these various bilateral mechanisms reveal a number of complementarities and commonalities between India-Indonesia, Australia-India and Australia-Indonesia comprehensive strategic partnership agreements. Australia-India closer ties following tensions with China Much before Covid-19, Canberra’s and New Delhi’s tensions with Beijing had begun to draw them closer to counter a bullish, assertive and intrusive regional strategy of Chinese Communist Party. India-China tensions grew after the Doklam skirmishes in 2017 at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan, and nosedived following recent violent clashes in Ladakh in which several military casualties have been reported from both sides. On the other hand, Australia’s unease over cybersecurity concerns, Beijing’s alleged interference in domestic political affairs, trade disputes, the detention of Australian citizens, and human rights concerns over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet have fed bilateral tensions. From Indonesia’s perspective, the increasing encroachment of China Coast Guard-led fishing fleets in Indonesia’s EEZ has alarmed Jakarta. These maritime territorial violations risk deepening resentments toward mainland Chinese workers and the perceived dominance of China over Indonesia’s economy.

Dr Ashutosh Misra

India and Australia’s shared concerns about Beijing became the harbinger of the historical virtual summit between Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison on 4 June during which both sides inked the framework arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled critical technology; MoUs on defence cooperation; water resources management; vocational education and training; public administration and governance reforms; cooperation in the field of mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals; counter-terrorism, money-laundering/countering financing for terrorism; joint declaration on maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific; arrangements in defence science and technology; and a shared vision of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region. Emerging global synergy among Indo-Pacific democracies The pandemic has also created a global synergy among Indo-Pacific democracies for a more transparent and accountable rules-based order. Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Senator Simon Birmingham, who led a trade delegation to New Delhi in February 2020 had said, “Australia must look into alternative markets in the European Union and India.” He also stressed the need to reduce reliance on China due to the impacts of COVID-19 on education and tourism and called for both countries to “stand firm in the face of coercive behaviour in all of its forms.” Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral cooperation should be analysed in the above context. The third Australia-India-Indonesia Trilateral Dialogue on Indian Ocean (TDIO) was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi in November 2017, following the success of the Indonesia-Australia-India (IAI) Senior Officials Strategic Dialogue in Bogor, Indonesia, in November 2017 and Canberra, Australia, in September 2018. Late this month, a video meeting of foreign ministers – S Jaishankar, Marise Payne and Retno Marsudi– is scheduled and will be followed by a meeting of Indian, Australian and Indonesian defence ministers. Given their shared regional concerns and the overlapping elements of their strategic outlooks and comprehensive partnerships, strengthening trilateral cooperation between these three Indo-Pacific players is essential to the region’s stability and prosperity. Dr Greta Nabbs Keller is based at the Centre for Policy Futures at The University of Queensland and Dr AshutoshMisra is the CEO of the Institute for Australia India Engagement and Editor-in-Chief of India News.