The recently concluded India-Australia security agreement has come at a time when tectonic power shifts are challenging Asian strategic stability. Asia has come a long way since the emergence of two Koreas, two Chinas, two Vietnams and a partitioned India. It has risen dramatically as the world’s main creditor and economic locomotive. The ongoing global power shifts indeed are primarily linked to Asia’s phenomenal economic rise.
Even so, Asia faces major challenges, as underscored by festering territorial and maritime disputes, sharpening resource competition, fast-rising military expenditures, increasingly fervent nationalism and the spread of transnational terrorism and other negative cross-border trends.
In that light, an expanding constellation of Asian countries linked by strategic cooperation and sharing common interests can help foster power stability and build institutionalized cooperation. A close India-Australia strategic relationship indeed is a critical link in this picture, given the common security interests in several spheres that bind the two democracies.
Unfortunately, the Indo-Australian relationship hasn’t gone too well ever since Kevin Rudd two years ago became the free world’s first Mandarin-speaking head of government. Among his first actions, he pulled the plug on the nascent India-Japan-Australia-U.S. "Quadrilateral Initiative" and reversed his predecessor’s decision to export uranium ore to India. For reasons unrelated, the growth in Indo-Australian educational and defense ties also came under pressure, even as India remained Australia’s fastest-growing merchandise export market.
Rudd’s India visit last month has helped to put the bilateral relationship on an even keel and, more importantly, to elevate it to a strategic partnership. The new security agreement will help add concrete strategic content to the relationship.
Underlining the significance of their new accord, India and Australia have agreed to "policy coordination" on Asian affairs and long-term international issues, and to work together in Asian initiatives like the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum. Toward that end, they will institute regular defense-policy talks, including consultations between their national security advisers, and set up a joint working group on counterterrorism. They also have agreed to cooperate on maritime and aviation security and participate in military exercises and other service-to-service exchanges.
Like the October 2008 Indo-Japanese security accord and the June 2005 Indo-U.S. defense agreement, the India-Australia declaration is a "framework" understanding that is to be followed by an action plan with specific steps. In fact, all these three bilateral accords call for advancing security cooperation in wide areas that extend from sea-lane security and defense collaboration to disaster management and counterterrorism.
The Indo-Japanese security agreement, signed when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Tokyo last, was modeled on the March 2007 Australia-Japan defense accord. Now, the India-Australia accord follows that lead. Its structure and even a large part of its content mirror that of the Japan-Australia and Japan-India declarations.
Actually, all three — the Japan-Australia, Japan-India and Australia-India agreements — are in the form of a joint declaration on security cooperation. And all three, while recognizing a common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, obligate their signatories to work together to build not just bilateral defense cooperation, but also security in Asia. They are designed as agreements to enhance mutual security between equals. By contrast, the U.S.-India defense agreement, with its emphasis on arms sales, force interoperability and intelligence sharing — elements not found in Australia-Japan, India-Japan and India-Australia accords — is aimed more at undergirding U.S. interests.
Paradoxically, Rudd, having nixed the Quadrilateral Initiative, has come full circle implicitly by plugging the only missing link in that quad — an Australia-India security agreement. With the Indo-Australian accord, quadrilateral strategic cooperation among the four major democracies in the Asia-Pacific region — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — is set to take off without the aid of an institutional mechanism like the Quadrilateral Initiative.
Such cooperation, of course, is intended to be in a bilateral framework. But the bilateral cooperation inexorably will help lay the foundation for greater cooperation and coordination at trilateral and quadrilateral levels among these four powers.
Australia, Japan and the United States already are engaged in institutionalized trilateral strategic dialogue, while India, Japan and the U.S. have held naval maneuvers since 2007, the last time being in April-May this year off the Okinawa coast. In addition, the quad members jointly staged major naval-war games in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007, roping in Singapore, too. Indeed, the coordination established among the Indian, Japanese, Australian and U.S. militaries in rescue operations following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has helped promote closer cooperation among them on disaster relief.
Make no mistake: The U.S. has actively encouraged Indian defense cooperation with Australia and Japan, which are tied to the U.S. by security treaty — the ANZUS treaty in the case of Australia and a 1951 treaty with Japan that was revised in 1960.
Closer Indian defense ties with key Asia-Pacific members of America’s hub-and-spoke global alliance system, in fact, are a natural corollary to the U.S.-India strategic tieup, which seeks to institute a "soft" alliance without treaty obligations, but with complex arrangements extending from the defense-framework accord and nuclear deal in mid-2005 to the recent End-Use Monitoring Agreement. As part of this tieup, India placed arms-purchase orders with the U.S. worth $3.5 billion just last year.
But while the U.S. has treaty commitments to defend Australia and Japan, its reciprocal security obligations to an emerging de facto ally like India are unclear. It also is doubtful whether security accords of the Japan-Australia, Australia-India and Japan-India type translate into tangible gains for the parties’ national defense against visible threats, even though they do aid their diplomacy and are likely to contribute to Asian power stability.
Australia’s own recent defense white paper, by unveiling the country’s biggest military buildup since World War II, serves as a reminder that there is no substitute to building adequate national deterrent capabilities, even for a country under the U.S. security umbrella. Japan, for its part, is likely to move to a more independent security posture in the years ahead, even though a muscular Chinese approach has prompted Tokyo in this decade to strengthen its military alliance with the U.S.
More broadly, Rudd’s government — through its record of being hyper-responsive to Chinese concerns, including on the Quadrilateral Initiative — has taken the lead for the U.S. in certain spheres. Just as Canberra has sought to balance its ties with Tokyo and Beijing, as well as with New Delhi and Beijing, the Obama administration now is following in those footsteps. Indeed, the new catchphrase coined by the Obama administration on China, "strategic reassurance," signals an American intent to be more accommodative of Chinese ambitions.
Or take another example: China’s resurrection of its long-dormant claim to India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Just as Australia has publicly chartered a course of neutrality on the Arunachal issue — to the delight of Beijing, which aims to leave an international question mark hanging over the legitimacy of India’s control over that large Himalayan territory — U.S. policy is doing likewise, albeit quietly. Indeed, the Obama administration has signaled its intent to abandon elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including a joint military drill in Arunachal and any further Indo-U.S. naval maneuvers involving Japan or more parties like Australia.
In New Delhi, Rudd underscored both the promise and limitations of the new Australia-India strategic partnership. While lauding the new security agreement, he contended disingenuously that his continued refusal to sell India uranium was "not targeted at any individual country," although India is the only country affected by his policy. Worse still, he proffered a specious justification — India’s nonmembership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). That treaty has no explicit or implicit injunction against civil nuclear cooperation with a nonsignatory. Rather, it enjoins its parties to positively facilitate "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy," so long as safeguards are in place.
Any restriction is not in the NPT but in the revised 1992 rules of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group that, paradoxically, were changed with Australian support last year to exempt India.
Eventually, Canberra will come round to selling India uranium. After all, how can Canberra continue to justify selling uranium to authoritarian China but banning such exports to democratic India, even though the latter has accepted what the former will not brook — stringent, internationally verifiable safeguards against diversion of imported uranium to weapons use? Canberra will not be able to plow a lonely furrow on India indefinitely.