Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott have scripted a new moment in India-Australia ties putting to rest the fitful gestures of drawing closer in the past.
The reasons for strengthening ties are obvious — New Delhi is interested in Australia’s natural resource exports while Canberra is alert to the promise of India’s vast market for its services. Both countries see themselves as Indian Ocean powers, they are interested in the emerging power-balance in the Asia-Pacific and watch the rise of China with a measure of fascinated ambivalence.
Bilateral ties have hitherto been constrained by slow progress towards the nuclear deal signed this year and a reluctance to be seen as openly balancing against China. But Beijing’s pointed manoeuvres in the South China Sea in recent months and emergence of strong leaders in India and Australia have clearly prompted a rethink.
Mr Modi’s visit provided a festive backdrop to confirming the direction of India-Australia ties. Both countries have agreed on a ‘framework for security cooperation’ that sets out an action plan to consolidate contact among their strategic elites.
In addition to annual summits, India and Australia will have meetings of foreign and defence ministers, senior diplomats, service chiefs, Track 1.5 dialogues, separate consultations on East Asia, regular maritime exercises and high-level dialogue on counter-terrorism, maritime security and cyber security.
India-Australia security cooperation is by no means a zero-sum arrangement since Australia has just signed a free trade deal with China that will add to current trade volumes of $131 billion — but it does show a willingness by Canberra and New Delhi to be clearheaded and unapologetic about exploring strategic convergences with like-minded powers.
The prime minister’s exuberant rhetoric on Australia will have pleased his hosts. In a well-received address to the Australian parliament, Mr Modi memorably underlined that Australia will not be at the periphery of India’s vision “but at the centre of our thought”.
He gestured towards Australia’s strategic importance saying it was at the heart of the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. Mr Modi went on to say that he saw “Australia as a major partner in every area of our national priority” including infrastructure, skills, education, agriculture energy, manufacturing, finance and technology and exhorting them to invest in India’s growth project. India, he said, will be the answer to Australia’s search for new economic opportunities and its desire for a more diversified global economic engagement. The India-Australia relationship will now be one to look out for in the fast evolving Asia Pacific region.