There is a lot of hue and cry in India about Australia scrapping its skilled visa programme – the employer-sponsored temporary work visas, popularly known as the 457 visa.
While the government of Malcolm Turnbull may have taken a short-sighted approach in its engagement with India by moving ahead with its new visa restrictions, New Delhi would be equally short sighted if it just focuses on this issue at the expense of larger shifts in regional balance of power.
The current transition of power in the Asia-Pacific, underlined by America’s relative decline and China’s growing power, has significant implications for most of the Asian states. Though the uncertainty around the future of international politics, norms and institutions does impinge upon all members of the international society, the Asian states find themselves at the forefront of this transition. For them the current transition of power is not only an ideological contest over the form and nature of the international political system but is inextricably linked to their own national security imperatives in a number of ways.
India and Australia are at the centre of this strategic flux in the Indo-Pacific.
The rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior is unnerving key Asian states. These states lack internal capacity to balance China’s growing economic and military strength on their own. Even when all these states have benefited enormously from China’s economic rise and continue to do so, cumulatively they have also contributed to China’s relative growth and its military capabilities.
If till recently China’s peaceful rise was a collective good for the Asian states, it has now turned into a collective military and security hazard. Regional economic growth is dependent on the freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific – from the South China Sea to Straits of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. As much as 25% of all traded goods pass through the Straits of Malacca.
Asia has benefited from the post-Cold War security order underlined by the primacy of the United States and now its relative decline is leading to growing concerns over the future of this liberal order and Washington’s capability and intention to defend the same.
During the Cold War, India-Australia relations remained cold largely on account of India’s relationship with the Soviet Union and Australia being a partner of the US. After the Cold War, Australia’s non-proliferation diplomacy and its resistance to India’s nuclear option didn’t allow the relationship to prosper fully. However, as the US reconciled India into the global nuclear regime, India-Australia relations also began to improve.
The rise of China too has had its influence on the dynamics – both India and Australia are wary of China’s challenge to the US-led liberal security order in Asia, its challenge to regional institutions like the ASEAN and freedom of navigation in Asian waters. The US, on its part, has also been encouraging the two countries to actively cooperate in the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific. The two states can be easily identified as linchpins of US strategic rebalancing because of their geography and military capability, especially in the Indian Ocean region. However, even though a strong India-Australia defence relationship was long viewed in the interests of both countries in general and the Asian stability in particular, it did not become possible until Australia accepted India’s nuclear exceptionalism.
Canberra’s intent to sell Uranium to India finally lifted the most important obstacle in the strategic relationship. In fact, India had held hostage the entire strategic partnership to this one disagreement. Just after the Labour Party agreed to lift sanctions on nuclear trade with India during the December 2011 National Conference, both nations agreed to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation, especially in the maritime domain.
India and Australia also have a consultative dialogue dedicated to East Asia, where both have some major stakes. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to India in 2012 was an unprecedented event – not only because Australia formally conveyed its new policy on trade in nuclear technology and material but the two countries also indicated their willingness to engage in bilateral defence cooperation, with a focus on Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Both states are wary of China’s assault on maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region. These common concerns have strengthened the need for greater maritime cooperation between the two nations and the two have started conducting joint naval combat exercises.
Their joint interest in building maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region was evident in the joint statements issued by the two sides when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot visited New Delhi in September 2014. He was the first state guest of the newly appointed Narendra Modi government. During this visit, the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement was appended, opening the gates for Australian Uranium to be used in India’s civilian nuclear programme.
The growing depth of this strategic partnership can be ascertained from Prime Minister Modi’s reciprocal visit to Australia in November 2014 – never in their history had the two heads of states paid reciprocal visits in the same year. During Modi’s visit to Australia, a security framework agreement was signed by the two countries, further underscoring the importance of defence cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
India and Australia are leading powers in the Indian Ocean region. The two countries are also at the helm of Indian Ocean Regional Association, a formal grouping consisting of the Indian Ocean Littoral States. Australia is also a permanent member of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium which brings together the local navies of Indian Ocean region. The extent of their regional cooperation in Indian Ocean can also be ascertained by their annual trilateral dialogues with countries like Japan and Indonesia.
The need of the hour is to push for greater engagement with such like-minded nations. Australia has been long keen on joining the Malabar exercises along with the US and Japan. India should favourably consider this request as the idea of an Indo-Pacific democratic quadrilateral needs resurrection at the earliest.
Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.