From defence partnership to security cooperation and coordinated pandemic response, the Australia–India relationship now encompasses almost every key bilateral component. But, as some experts believe, the best is yet to come.
India’s stand-in cricket captain Ajinkya Rahane is busy savouring a stunning victory against Australia in the Melbourne Test match after a historic defeat in the previous one – but in 2020, ties between India and Australia were devoid of such dramatic swings of fate.
Instead, relations between the two countries reached broader and more cooperative depths than it had at any time in history – and myriad factors were responsible for that.
One of the biggest factors is of course the personal equation between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who have both consulted and collaborated frequently with each other to navigate the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the evolving security situation in the Indo-Pacific.
India-Australia relations touched a new high with both the countries elevating their ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, signing key agreements including a landmark pact for reciprocal access to military bases against the backdrop of their frosty relations with China.
PM Morrison, who had to cancel his trip to India in January, 2020 due to the devastating bushfire season in his country, effusively praised his “good friend” PM Modi for playing an “important part” in “stabilising” the strategic Indo-Pacific region against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis, when they held their first virtual bilateral summit in June.
Then there’s trade. While India was Australia’s 12th largest export destination at the turn of the millennium, those numbers have rapidly evolved for New Delhi to become Australia’s fifth-largest, with Canberra being a top-20 trade partner for India.
The year 2020 also saw growing political cooperation between the governments of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, including in multilateral institutions such as the Commonwealth, G20, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
“In IORA, India and Australia coordinated closely in establishing the secretariat in Mauritius, and in working with Indonesia during its chairmanship of the organisation in 2015–2016,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute, and Director of the US Initiative at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“India’s nuclear status is now a non-issue following the mainstreaming of its program, the lifting by Australia of its uranium ban, and the India-Australia civilian nuclear agreement. And people-to-people contacts have widened, with large numbers of Indian tourists, students, and immigrants contributing to Australia’s economy and society,” he wrote in The Print.
In October, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met for only the second ministerial of the Quad.
About 15 years ago, these four countries came together organically to deal with the fall-out of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
There was subsequently a working-level meeting of the grouping, and a maritime exercise in 2007. However, as described by an Australian analyst, the grouping that once faltered and restarted with a crawl half a decade ago now finally stands on its two feet, taking some rapid strides in keeping the Indo-Pacific corridor safe from regional hegemony and conducive to free trade and commercial activities.
“Now that a platform has been established for strategic relations between two large and capable democratic powers in the Indo-Pacific, the two countries have an opportunity to build on them further. Should India-Australia ties continue to develop at their recent pace, the relationship could yet evolve into one of the most important regional partnerships in the Indo-Pacific,” said Jaishankar.
Insofar as India-Australia relations are concerned, as the saying goes, they have only just begun.