China is the largest security anxiety for Australia and India: Richard Marles
Australian deputy PM Richard Marles told reporters in New Delhi that China is seeking to “shape the world around it in a way that we have not seen before”
China is the “largest security anxiety” for Australia and India, and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific region makes greater cooperation between Canberra and New Delhi “absolutely imperative”, Australian deputy prime minister Richard Marles said on Thursday.
Australia and India also have a key role to play in protecting the global rules-based order, especially in the wake of the war in Ukraine, Marles told a small group of journalists following his meetings with the Indian leadership.
Marles, who is also the Australian defence minister, is the first senior leader from the new Anthony Albanese government in Canberra to travel to New Delhi. His visit, just a month after the election, reflects the importance the new administration places on the relationship with India, Marles said. “We see India as completely central to Australia’s world view,” he said.
“For Australia, China is our largest security anxiety. That is also the same for India. How to reconcile those two things is not obvious,” he added, acknowledging that China is also the largest trading partner for both countries.
China is seeking to “shape the world around it in a way that we have not seen before”, and that has resulted in “more assertive Chinese behaviour”, especially in the last couple of years, Marles said.
“We’ve seen it in respect of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)... the incident that occurred a couple of years ago, where there was appalling behaviour towards Indian soldiers, and we stand in solidarity with India in respect of that incident,” he said, referring to the Galwan Valley clashes in June 2020 that killed 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops.
China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is aimed at deterring Australia’s activities to protect the rules-based order in that region, including the freedom of navigation and overflight, he added.
Greater cooperation between Australia and India in the face of such Chinese assertiveness is “absolutely imperative”, said Marles, who held talks with Union defence minister Rajnath Singh and external affairs minister S Jaishankar over the past two days.
The two countries have a shared objective of establishing a global rules-based order, where disputes between nations are peacefully resolved against a set of rules, and not “determined by force”, he said.
Australia is also “anxious about the growing relationship between China and Russia”, including the joint military exercises done by these two countries in the Pacific, Marles said. In this context, it is important for democracies to protect the rules-based order that has ensured stability and prosperity since World War 2, he added.
Marles pointed out that the principles at stake in the Ukraine crisis – where a large country is seeking to overpower a smaller neighbour by force – apply everywhere, including the Indo-Pacific region.
He also held out the possibility of Australia and India working together in the Pacific, where China has been trying to forge new security arrangements with Pacific Island States. The recent security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was a cause of concern for Australia, as any move to establish a Chinese military base in the region “would greatly change Australia’s national security landscape”.
Marles said there is a lot of scope for cooperation with India in the Pacific, while noting the significant Indian diaspora in Fiji, the work already done by the two sides to supply Covid-19 vaccines to Kiribati, and to support Tonga after an earthquake and tsunami in January.
“There’s probably never been a moment in our two countries’ respective histories when we have been more strategically aligned,” Marles said, highlighting the role played by the Indian diaspora in Australia in fields such as politics.
Besides building economic ties, deeper engagement in defence enhances the security of both India and Australia, which have shared values and geographies. “In that respect, all roads lead to India,” he said.