The India-Australia 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue Australia-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The outcome also has greater geopolitical consequences for the Indo-Pacific.
The first India-Australia 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue was held in New Delhi from 10-12 September, with India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar hosting their Australian counterparts, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne. The meeting took place against the backdrop of the withdrawal of US-led coalition forces, including Australian forces, from Afghanistan and the deteriorating ties of both Australia and India with China amid the unfolding geopolitics of the COVID-19 pandemic.
India and Australia Forge a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership
Despite significant similarities between the two democracies, Australia and India have struggled to establish a significant strategic partnership. For a long time, the relationship revolved around the narratives of “Cricket, Commonwealth, and Curry.” The relationship was primarily economic, mainly driven by mineral and resource exports, education, and tourism. India’s non-signatory status to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hampered Australia-India relationship momentum. The Adani Carmichael coal mining project, critical to India’s energy future, also faced serious resistance in Australia ever since its inception in 2011. The Australia-India economic relationships have yet to be fully realised, while the defence relationship has yet to progress to its full potential.
However, both sides continue to work to strengthen their relationship. Both countries have prioritised each other in their strategic framing since the signing of the Australia-India Civil Nuclear Agreement and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia in 2014. Both have made steady diplomatic and political progress since then, with an increased number of high-profile ministers and officials visiting each other’s countries, as well as summit-level meetings.
The 2+2 dialogue is a further step in the growing relationship. This will not only facilitate the process but also clear any misunderstanding that might halt the pace of the Australia-India relationship.
Accelerating Cooperation Amid the COVID-19 Security Challenges
Shared concern surrounding aggressive China’s posturing in the Indo-Pacific has accelerated Australia-India security ties during the pandemic.
On 4 June 2020, at the India-Australia Leaders’ Virtual Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Scott Morrison elevated the India-Australia relationship from the bilateral Strategic Partnership signed in 2009 to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). In addition to a coordinated response to COVID-19, both concluded a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement and a Defence Science and Technology Arrangement to build a prosperous, open, and stable post-COVID-19 world. In November 2020, Australia and India joined the Quad Malabar defence exercise and the first Quad summit meeting with the US and Japan, where Quad members decided to extend the partnership beyond the military aspect and work together to tackle the non-traditional security challenges including those emanating from the COVID-19 outbreak.
At the 2+2 Dialogue, Australia and India reaffirmed their commitment to containing COVID-19 in both countries and beyond. They committed to enhancing cooperation in vaccine manufacturing and timely and equitable access to high-quality and affordable COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies. This will be achieved through COVAX for Indo-Pacific partners under the Quad framework, and India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative.
Expediting Diplomatic and Defence Ties
The 2+2 dialogue is all set to facilitate the diplomatic and defence ties. These are driven by strategic convergence in the Indo-Pacific and the scope for collaboration in science, technology, and research and development in the defence sector. The economic ramifications are much bigger as closer ties will not only enhance defence commerce but also generate employment. The security implications are far more serious. There is a huge opportunity for both countries to work together to maximise their potential in the defence sector. Both nations are committed to maritime security, counter-piracy and counter-terrorism, disaster management and protecting the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. The 2+2 format will not only facilitate the process at the diplomatic but will enhance the frequency of military drills which would help the two forces to develop trust, coordination, and interoperability.
Since the 1992 Malabar exercise, India has pursued strong defence ties with the United States, with Japan joining in 2015. Under the Trilateral Security Dialogue, Australia has a security agreement with the United States and Japan. However, India and Australia have yet to strengthen their defence ties. Despite shoring up defence ties with friendly countries, India values strategic autonomy and prefers to be a strategic partner rather than an ally, so India must have trust and confidence in the other three Quad countries, and vice versa. Given India’s unique strategic perspectives and strategic culture, Australia must engage with India outside of its usual comfort zone of security alliances. The India-Australia 2+2 dialogue strengthens the Quad defence arrangement, which is an important Indo-Pacific strategy for deterring China’s intent to dominate the region.
Towards a Free and Open Indo-Pacific:
The ministers emphasised the importance of continuing to work toward their common goal of establishing an Indo-Pacific region that is open, free, prosperous, and governed by rules. They also reaffirmed their commitment to fully implement the CSP, which is based on mutual trust and understanding, shared interests, and shared democratic and rule-of-law values. The 2+2 discussion is an important step in this direction.
Both countries have increased their engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative of India, the Indo-Pacific approach of Australia, and Pacific Step-Up are all examples of active work toward this goal. The dialogue will increase the frequency of the defence exercises and complement Quad, which has emerged as a formidable bulwark against China’s assertive and authoritarian push into the Indo-Pacific.
The 2+2 dialogue is set to institutionalise and improve collaboration between relevant Australian and Indian organisations. As the dialogue is scheduled to take place at least once every two years, ties between the two countries will strengthen under the 2+2 framework, which will help realise the full potential of India-Australia relationship.
Dr Ashok Sharma is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs; a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra, and the Deputy Chair of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Auckland Branch.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.