Despite the Covid-19 crisis, geopolitical competition is not going into hibernation. With relations between the US and China taking a further adversarial turn, it is imperative that Australia find ways to continue strengthening and diversifying its strategic relationships.
How the pandemic will ultimately shape the regional order remains uncertain. Under any scenario, Australia’s partnerships across the Indo-Pacific will continue to be critical in navigating the region after the crisis passes. In this regard, Australia’s trilateral relationship with India and Japan is one asset that can be further developed and leveraged.
While significant attention has been paid to the rebirth of the ‘Quad’ dialogue among Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra, Australia’s trilateral arrangements with India and Japan have also matured in recent years. Amid concerns over the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific, the three other Quad partners have steadily reinforced their own collaboration. For example, the three countries now consistently convene at the foreign-secretary level.
Upgraded defence and diplomatic engagement has been a cornerstone of this trilateral. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of Australia–India defence exercises nearly quadrupled, and in 2019 Australia sent its largest ever deployment to India. Japan’s increasing defence activity with India and their upgraded ties led to an inaugural ‘2+2’ meeting of the two countries’ foreign and defence ministers in late 2019.
For Australia and Japan, both alliance partners with the US, deeper strategic ties with India are not a substitute for steadfast US engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, as India’s strategic clout grows, its contribution as a regional balancing power can be encouraged and complemented.
In February, Japan’s ambassador to Australia, Reiichiro Takahashi, spoke in Perth on the strategic underpinnings of this trilateral relationship:
All three countries have our own visions and plans for the Indo-Pacific that bear remarkable similarities in content, namely a desire for the rule of law, increased trade, stability, and development … [T]hey certainly share an equal concern for the maritime domain, and this in turn indicates how much potential there is for greater co-operation between us.
Since February, the health crisis and economic dislocation caused by Covid-19 has afflicted Australia, India and Japan. Nonetheless, the shared interests of the three countries have been reinforced in a region plunged into further uncertainty. These shared interests extend from managing the current crisis to preserving a rules-based regional order that’s at risk of unravelling.
Australia needs to find creative ways now to not only maintain these vital relationships, but strengthen them where possible. Given the extensive underpinnings of the Australia–Japan relationship, it’s Australia’s relationship with India that needs further developing.
There is no silver bullet for Australian officials pursuing deeper ties with India—strategic partnerships are developed over time through consistent engagement, dialogue and cooperation. Even in the constrained Covid-19 environment, there are a number of investments Australia can look to make.
On the defence side, concluding the mutual logistics support agreement with India remains a near-term opportunity. An anticipated outcome of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s postponed January visit to India, the agreement will enable reciprocal access to military facilities and increase the two countries’ capacity to operate together. This could be concluded even without a prime ministerial visit and complement an India–Japan equivalent that’s also under negotiation.
Increasing the volume and complexity of Australia’s joint exercises with India will also offer benefits. The largest such initiative, AUSINDEX, featured anti-submarine exercises for the first time last year, alongside coordinated aerial patrols over the Bay of Bengal. The capacity to conduct joint exercises is likely to be limited in the near term, but ongoing defence engagement and planning of future operations remains vital. While Japan’s public support for Australian participation in the Malabar exercise involving India, Japan and the US is important—and Australian participation would be welcome—Malabar is but one of many joint exercises that can occur.
Diplomatically, maintaining senior-level dialogues is essential to turn shared interests into common action. This includes Australia’s ‘2+2’ with India and the formal trilateral dialogue, both currently held at the secretary level. Following the recent upgrade of the India–Japan 2+2, Australia could pursue a similar boost to its equivalent dialogue with India. Complementing Australia’s longstanding ministerial 2+2 with Japan, this would ensure all three countries were conducting such meetings at the ministerial level. These arrangements could underpin the upgrading of the trilateral dialogue itself to the ministerial level.
The maturing of the Australia–India–Japan trilateral relationship is testament to Australia’s strategic policy of helping to shape a regional order that is multipolar and balanced, and in which Australia has options. This has involved strengthening longstanding relationships like that with Japan, upgrading emerging ones like that with India, and building networked partnerships across the Indo-Pacific like the Australia–India–Japan trilateral.
The task remains unfinished, however, and Covid-19 further clouds Australia’s navigation of an uncertain regional outlook. While deepening Australia’s relationships is made more challenging amid the pandemic, a more precarious region makes those relationships all the more important.
This article was originally published on 15th May 2020 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.