AUSINDEX 2019: An Assessment

AUSINDEX, a joint Australia-India naval exercise, is currently underway off the coast of Vishakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal and will continue till 16 April 2019. The Australian contingent for these exercises is the largest till date and includes nearly one thousand personnel from the Australian navy, army and the air force. The lead Australian ship in the exercises, HMAS Canberra, has helicopters and is accompanied by missile frigates HMAS Newcastle and HMAS Parramatta, and tanker HMAS Success. The Indian deployment for the exercise includes a stealth destroyer, anti-submarine vessel and shore-based aircraft that will provide the air attack component. Both sides are likely to field submarines - Collins class from Australia and Kilo class from India.

Undoubtedly, both India and Australia have ambitions to play a major role in the Indian Ocean security. Australia views India as natural strategic partner in the Indian Ocean region and has increased its participation in military exercises since 2015. Furthermore, AUSINDEX is symbolic of the commitment of both countries to further their defence and strategic relationship within the broader ‘Framework for Security Cooperation’ announced in 2014.

There are at least four reasons why these naval exercises are important. First, is the growing recognition of the Indian Ocean as a contested geostrategic space. As trade increases in this region, protection of sea lines of communication becomes important particularly the energy demand of most countries in the Indo-Pacific region. India and Australia share the vision of freedom of navigation, uninterrupted lawful flow of commerce, as well as settlement of disputes in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Second, China’s increased interests in the Indian Ocean are symbolized by the growing presence on the Chinese Navy in the region. The current focus of the AUSINDEX is on anti-submarine warfare and submarine tracking and related exercises would dominate AUSINDEX. It could be the response to the frequent sighting of Chinese submarines on long-range deployments in the Indian Ocean.

Third, is the ‘rise’ of East Asia; the region has three of the world’s four largest and interdependent economies signifying global shift in economic power. At another level, the region is home to global flash points such as the Korean peninsula, Taiwan issue, disputes in the South China Sea and enhanced US naval and air activity in the region which is causing discomfort in China.

Also, deployment of missiles by Japan, and South Korea’s acquisition of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) present a complex security environment. Likewise, China’s assertiveness in South China Sea has made many of the Southeast Asian countries including non-claimants wary of China’s intent in the region. The emerging complex security milieu particularly in the context of South China Sea is of key interest to both India and Australia.

Fourth, India and Australia are concerned about wide ranging non-traditional security threats and challenges. These provide convergences between the two countries to individually, jointly and collectively address issues of terrorism, piracy and illegal activities at sea including maritime crime

On the economic front, bilateral trade between the two countries has seen a remarkable growth; it has grown from US $5.1 billion in 2003 to US $18 billion in 2014-15. Both countries are also working towards a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which will further enhance the volume and scope of economic cooperation.

Keeping the above in mind, it is likely that India sees Australia as a compatible partner in its attempts to defend the Indo-Pacific. In 2009, the two countries elevated their relationship to a “strategic partnership” and the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper recognised India as a country of “first order” importance. In October 2018, they held the second ‘Two plus two Foreign and Defence Secretaries Dialogue’.

In the past, there have been severe limitations to India-Australia cooperation. The two have shied away from developing an institutional framework that could have promoted defence and security architecture at large. Australia’s Indian Ocean capabilities were also limited. However, in cooperation with India, these capabilities can multiply exponentially. Australia has also proposed a logistics sharing agreement with India to further strengthen defence cooperation between the two navies.

AUSINDEX 2019 must not be seen just a naval exercise, it is the beginning of a multilateral framework for the Quad, wherein the United States and Japan along with India and Australia are important players.

Dr Manish is Professor at School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar.

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