Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday signed a crucial defense pact to upgrade bilateral ties into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, according to media reports.
Whereas this accord is set against the backdrop of escalating border tensions between China and India, this intensifies friction between Beijing and Canberra. Some analysts regard this move as a joint effort between India and Australia to counter China.
It is true that China has had some frictions with both counties recently. Australia, which relies on the US for security and China for economy, has always struck a balance between the two sides. However, as one of the US’ closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region, Canberra has coordinated with Washington closely in the latter’s recent ramping up of attacks on Beijing. The land down under has recently adopted a tougher stance toward the world’s second-largest economy upon which it depends.
After Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi held their first informal summit in Wuhan in 2018, China and India have evidently improved bilateral ties. They have acted prudently to cope with sensitive issues, including border disputes.
Yet after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, India seems to be worrying that its own international status is declining while China’s influence is rising, especially in regions such as South Asia and Africa where India wishes to play an influential role. Therefore, its attitude toward China has to some extent changed.
By asserting itself with recent conflicts with China on its border, India may hope to shape more pressure toward China from the international community – in particular from the West. New Delhi can thus show Washington its tensions with Beijing, adding more leverage to boost relationships with the West. This embodies a shift in India’s strategic tendencies.
Since US President Donald Trump introduced the Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2017, his administration has been trying to rope India into this strategy. Trump’s recent move in inviting Modi to participate in the G7 summit is another display of his strategic intentions.
India has been cautious with the US’ Indo-Pacific framework. New Delhi is so far reluctant to become a pawn of Washington’s game of containing Beijing.
Within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – known as Quad – among the US, Japan, India and Australia, coordination between Australia and India was already set in motion. The two, after all, are competitive in the Indian Ocean.
By virtue of its location, Australia has close relations with some Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia.
When it comes to India, Modi established the Act East policy, whose range also covers Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. India today harbors strong strategic ambitions – it intends to play a leading role in the Indian Ocean, especially in Southeast Asia. For example, India is a member of an international organization called the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), in which seven countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia cooperate. India contributes 33 percent of the BIMSTEC Permanent Secretariat’s expenditure. That being said, both India and Australia compete in Southeast Asia.
India has been reluctant to cooperate with Australia militarily. Exercise Malabar is a trilateral naval exercise only involving the US, Japan and India as permanent partners, while Australia is the only one excluded as a member of the Quad.
However, India and Australia on Thursday signed a pact of mutual logistics support to increase military inter-operability through defense exercises between the two countries. Furthermore, it is reported that New Delhi is open to include Canberra in the Malabar trilateral naval exercise this year. Their common interests in dealing with rifts with China do play a role in urging the two countries to coordinate strategically, which deserves China’s vigilance.
An enhanced partnership between Australia and India, especially in terms of military cooperation, will bring about a new change in the strategic pattern of the entire Indo-Pacific region. Such changes will shape a confrontational atmosphere in the region, jeopardizing peace and stability.
Australia and the US have conducted certain degrees of coordination over the South China Sea issue, yet India has not stepped in.
India, as a power with global influence, will hardly fully coordinate with the US’ strategic pace. India has been stressing its diplomatic independence. It is too early to say whether or not Australia and India will coordinate their strategies to confront China.
The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Lu Yuanzhi based on an interview with Su Hao, founding director of the Center for Strategic and Peace Studies at the China Foreign Affairs University. [email protected]