The maritime relationship between India and Australia has been on an upward trajectory since the 2014 Australia-India Framework for Security Cooperation. A lack of past interaction meant there was ample room for collaboration. The pace of development in the relationship has been quick, and includes a bilateral exercise, regular meetings between defence ministers, and a new White Shipping Agreement. There has also been a first collaboration; an Indian aircraft headed to Fiji on a relief mission after Cyclone Winston stopped over at RAAF base Amberley in Queensland for maintenance purposes.

So the ground is now set and policies are in motion, but what’s next? Unfortunately, differing agendas may lead to frustration and disappointment as the relationship moves forward. 

In every conference and seminar in Australia on developments in the region and the maritime domain, India is high on the agenda. The reason is China. Just like in India, the Australian strategic community is closely monitoring changing dynamics in the maritime domain. As far as India is concerned, Australia’s interests lie in understanding what New Delhi will do as China’s maritime aggression continues. How will India balance the rise of China and when will India finally take up responsibility in the region? 

Until Canberra ceases simplistically framing India against the rise of China, the answer will be disappointing. The two countries are looking at the same problem through a different lens.

India is of course concerned about China’s rise and presence in Indian Ocean, and wants to play a role. But India does not want to position itself against China. It does not measure every approach as a reaction to Chinese policies in the region. India’s new approach to maritime security is a reflection of the changing security environment and India’s need to step out of isolation. This approach is seen by Australia as India indicating to the region that it will take on a bigger responsibility. But the strategic outlook from each end is different. 

India is going to do what it thinks is necessary and that includes engaging and collaborating with regional navies and building a network of friends and partners. What India does not consider necessary is meeting another state’s expectations of what constitutes regional responsibility. 

New Delhi has been expanding its collaborations and presence through the region. Even if it has no interest in making a statement in the South China Sea, its strategic relationships with the countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines continue to develop. In the Indian Ocean, India naturally considers itself a prominent player and is working with a range of countries, from Australia and Indonesia in the east to Seychelles in the west. From India’s point of view, it is doing as much as required and more than it has done in the past. Yet, nations cannot hide their disappointment as far as India’s role in the region is concerned.

From New Delhi’s point of view, engaging with Australia remains a complicated affair. Every time India works with Australia, it must factor in Washington. Though India’s relationship with the US has improved markedly, New Delhi is used to working in a bilateral, unaligned manner. Australia cannot understand why India would look at the US alliance as a negative and India cannot understand why Australia would not think of the alliance as a potential impediment to other bilateral relations. 

Despite being big, democratic Indian Ocean residents with shared values, there are stark differences between the two countries. The differences in part come from perspectives, threat perception and priorities in the maritime domain. There is a need to manage expectations from both ends.

India is just beginning to engage with the region and is willing to do more. Before Australia can start questioning India about its regional responsibilities, it must do more to strengthen trust at a bilateral level. There has to be enough communication, dialogue and understanding before the two can reach a consensus on how to deal with the regional challenges.  

What India should do is communicate; convey its concerns and acknowledge the areas in which it could use some help. Australia, for its part, should be more understanding, and factor in India’s threats along its land borders, its bureaucratic complexities, and its overall foreign policy objectives.  

Photo: Commonwealth of Australia/Department of Defence