Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently concluded a four-day visit to India. During the trip, he traveled to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, for a cricket test match between India and Australia and then to Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, to nurture business linkages between India and Australia, before reaching Delhi for political and strategic discussions.
Following his meeting with Modi, Albanese tweeted, “We’ve forged a deeper connection between our two nations – from education and culture to defence and trade.” In his turn, Modi said that the two leaders had “a detailed discussion on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, and increasing mutual defence and security cooperation.”
Modi also recalled the many agreements between the two countries, including the logistics agreement that facilitates mutual support for the two armed forces, and spoke about the General Rawat Officers Exchange Program that began in February 2023. This exchange, which is already underway in India, involves the participation of 15 officers from India and Australia for a 15-day program. Australia will be hosting the next edition in 2024.
Another issue of great importance to the two countries in the current international context was the establishment of “reliable and robust global supply chains.” Supply chain resilience has become a critical agenda in many of India’s bilateral and minilateral conversations including the Australia-India-Japan trilateral. India and the United States recently concluded a Memorandum of Understanding on semiconductors and electronic supply chains. India and Australia also want to focus on renewable energy sources such as clean hydrogen and solar.
The two sides are also looking to conclude the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. Modi also referred to the recent attacks on Hindu temples in Australia, and said that Albanese had assured him that “the safety of the Indian community is a special priority.”
Albanese in his media statement announced that strengthening people-to-people ties is an important piece of the bilateral agenda. In this regard, the two sides signed an agreement for “mutual recognition of Australian and Indian education qualifications” that will be beneficial for the student communities from the two countries in addition to increasing the presence of Australian universities in India. The two sides are also making efforts to conclude a Migration and Mobility Partnership Arrangement that can facilitate Indian students, professionals, and other workers working in Australia.
The 50-point joint statement issued at the end of Albanese’s visit is impressive. But even more so was Albanese visiting India’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, the first such tour by any foreign leader.
The carrier, based on its Kiev-class predecessor, is a 43,000 tonne warship, commissioned in the Indian Navy last September. INS Vikrant is the largest warship that has been built in India, which makes it a prized achievement for India. Currently, India operates Russian-built MiG-29Ks on the carrier, but India’s plans are to procure either the F/A-18 Super Hornets or Rafale-M fighters. That the Indian Air Force is already flying Rafales gives the Rafale-M an edge, but the government is yet to make a final decision.
While visiting the aircraft carrier, Albanese characterized India as a “top-tier security partner” of Australia and remarked that “there has never been a point in both of our countries’ histories where we’ve had such a strong strategic alignment.” He also appreciated the Indian military joining the multinational Talisman Sabre war games in Australia in July-August. The Talisman Sabre series of exercises began in 2005 and are held every two years, with the participation of a number of India’s new security partners including the United States, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. These exercises are meant to enhance crisis planning and combined responses to evolving contingency situations. In the 2021 iteration, India, Indonesia, Germany, and France joined as observers.
Albanese was also pleased that Australia will be hosting the four-nation Malabar naval exercise for the first time in August this year. Maritime security being a major agenda for the two Indo-Pacific powers, Albanese noted that “the Indian Ocean is central to both countries’ security and prosperity. And we are working together to ensure the Indo-Pacific is open, inclusive and prosperous” – a message that resonates very much with India. India will be sending its frontline warships as well as the P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft for the Malabar exercise. The Malabar series began as a bilateral naval exercise between India and the United States since 1992; Japan joined as a permanent partner from 2015.
The two prime ministers reiterated their strong commitment to an augmented defense and security partnership for the common good of the Indo-Pacific, by emphasizing on an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. The two leaders were appreciative of multiple channels of dialogue, including the 2+2 Defense and Foreign Ministerial Dialogue and the meeting of the defense ministers, which have become critical in strengthening mutual understanding and coordinated approaches between India and Australia. They also highlighted importance of the complex military exercises undertaken by the two militaries in addition to the frequencies of their engagements, which will enhance the interoperability and comfort levels between the two sides. That the two sides have an operational India-Australia Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement to strengthen their ability to work with each other was also appreciated. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) figured prominently in the joint statement and Modi and Albanese appreciated the strengthened defense information sharing between the two countries.
In addition to the bilateral defense and security agenda, another big part of the discussion revolved around the regional security environment and what India and Australia can do together to enhance the overall strategic conditions in the Indo-Pacific. Maintaining sovereignty and territorial integrity and respect for international law including in the maritime domain, freedom of the seas, and overflight were all emphasized in the joint statement. The two leaders also agreed to further strengthen cooperation through mechanisms such as through the Quad. A Quad Summit is to take place in Australia in May this year.
Even as Modi and Albanese discussed a range of issues — including trade and investment, climate change and disaster relief, and a whole host of other issues — the defense and security agenda driving the relationship cannot be emphasized enough. The fact that the two sides discussed so many different issues demonstrates the diversified and comprehensive nature of the Australia-India partnership. China and the broader Indo-Pacific strategic dynamics have sharpened the Australia-India emphasis on hard security issues, at least for the time being.