The Indo-Pacific narrative is witnessing new momentum amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States (US)-led anti-China narrative is becoming stronger. There is mounting pressure to reduce the global over-reliance on China’s supply chain networks, with foreign companies already attempting to shift their business enterprises out of China.
Many countries have begun to recalibrate their ties with China: for example, Japan has allocated a USD 2.2 billion package to encourage businesses to move out of China. Martin Parkinson, Australia’s former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has stated that China’s trade threats in response to Australia’s demand for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic have been a ‘wakeup call’. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated that Australia will not be ‘intimidated’ by the economic threats of its largest trading partner, China. India’s ties with China, balanced precariously on a power-partner contention, have also witnessed a new low due to the recent India-China border skirmishes.
At the same time, Beijing’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and ‘mask diplomacy’ are equally making a statement that China is not a weaker power vis-à-vis the US. China’s approach towards the Indo-Pacific region is also witnessing a steady evolution with its assertive presence and territorial claims on Taiwan, the South China Sea and the East China Sea (Senkaku Islands) continuing during the ongoing pandemic. Such Chinese strategic posturing has certainly brought the Indo-Pacific powers together: more than any other power dynamics in the region, the India-Australia relationship is one that is today witnessing a new trajectory. Importantly, a growing regional character in India-Australia ties holds enormous implications for another Indo-Pacific power, namely Japan.
Ties between India and Australia have always fallen short of imbibing a regional character even though both the powers are integral to the Indo-Pacific narrative, and hence, to the international liberal order. During a recent virtual summit meeting between their two prime ministers, India and Australia upgraded their ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and furthered defence cooperation by inking an Arrangement concerning Mutual Logistics Support (MLSA). Such an elevation holds strategic significance in the Indo-Pacific given the anti-China global narrative that is fast emerging, and more importantly, given Canberra’s recent political posturing which has been critical towards China. To India, a comprehensive partnership with Australia to advance cooperation in the field of military logistics is a significant move since this brings India closer to the regional ‘alliance framework’ favoured by the US. It is also likely to create a strategic and military consonance that would improve India’s image as a military power in the Indo-Pacific, upgrading its stature to be in the league of the US, France and South Korea. Hopefully, this agreement will encourage Tokyo and New Delhi to ink the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which is in the final stages of negotiations. An India-Japan military agreement involving the ACSA would certainly strengthen the Indo-Pacific character that India and Japan are trying to promote, both bilaterally and regionally. Moreover, this will supplement and strengthen the respective trilateral and quadrilateral security arrangements, namely Australia-Japan-India and Australia-Japan-India-US.
Further, the MLSA will certainly improve Australia’s chances of being invited to the Malabar naval exercise that currently involves India, Japan and the US – a formal invitation is yet to be extended to Canberra. The rationale behind a quadruple Malabar has increasingly gained cognisance; appeasing China has largely been counter-productive, as China expects compliance from other nations without conceding much. Including Australia in Malabar will certainly allow the four countries a better Indo-Pacific outreach. Together, the maritime strengths of all four Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partners can be a major deterrent to China’s maritime aggressiveness through strengthened and active military operations.
The emerging ‘comprehensive’ nature of the India-Australia ties seeks to build new momentum based on common interests and shared values pertaining to democracy and the rule of law; it also envisions creating synergy for a committed response to COVID-19. It will facilitate a strategic context for India’s Indo-Pacific outlook and Australia’s Pacific Step-Up discourse to create a rules-based Indo-Pacific region. The two nations also released a joint declaration on ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’, which reiterated the centrality of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They plan to work together to develop Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), enhance navy-to-navy cooperation and implement a jointly created ‘Action Plan’ aimed at advancing this ‘Shared Vision’.
Further, India-Australia ‘Comprehensive Strategic partnership’, together with the Japan-Australia ‘Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation’ and the India-Japan ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, strengthens their trilateral framework and enhance their respective national power status. Some bilateral engagements include the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA), launched in 2015 as Tokyo’s business, infrastructural and connectivity investment initiative in Australia; the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which is still under negotiation; and the ‘Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region’, an ambitious project that is meant to enhance business cooperation between Indian and Japanese companies in Asia-Africa region, will benefit with the inclusion of Australia. The three countries should take full advantage of the temporary stalling of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and build together on their bilateral economic mechanisms to create a new, united post-COVID regional trade framework.
Another important framework in this area is the Blue Dot Network (BDN), perceived mostly as a counter-BRI initiative jointly launched by the US, Japan and Australia — India is yet to join this network. For the trilateral nations that want to move investments out of China under recent circumstances, the relocation costs are unaffordable. Hence, it is more feasible to invest in infrastructure needs instead, allowing a boost in domestic growth which will inadvertently make them feasible location grounds for industries. BDN can improve the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rankings of all trilateral members which will attract large scale investment.
The post-COVID global economic and connectivity frameworks will change inordinately. Mounting international pressure on China to alter its behavioural approach; and US President Donald Trump’s bid to expand the G-7 to include India and Australia has only enhanced the scope for synergy between ‘like-minded’ nations. In such a scenario, the Indo-Pacific region and its littoral states, particularly India, Australia and Japan, must rethink their foreign policy strategies and reframe their economic, political and diplomatic ties to co-create a new synergy in an evolving regional order.