Wandering through Australia, I’m discovering that our own great Sikhs came in shiploads during the 19th century to fight under Australian officers in World War I. The Brits brought camels from India with Sikh cameleers whom the Australians mistook as Afghans. More Sikhs arrived to set up a base between Brisbane and Sydney establishing banana plantations. Surprisingly they haven’t reached the moon yet.
Fast forward to 1998 to India’s nuclear tests. Australia then was so paranoid about nuclear proliferation that the Sikh Defence Attaché was asked to leave Australia within 24 hours. In a surprising turn of policy two years ago Canberra decided to export uranium to India. On 15 February Defence Secretary, Greg Moriarty announced its ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ nuclear policy. Australia no longer asks strategic bombers whether they are carrying nuclear weapons. US B52 stealth B2 bombers operate from Australian bases to maintain ‘Operation Unpredictability’ dispersing the nuclear triad. The stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia is prohibited under its South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty but the US has traditionally neither confirmed nor denied carriage of nuclear weapons, a policy endorsed by Foreign Minister Penny Wong at a Senate hearing last week where the Greens Senator objected to breach of SPNFZT. Under the highly controversial Australia UK and US (AUKUS) arrangement, Canberra’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet — which canceled the agreement with France to buy its Barracuda design — two already built UK Astute class submarines will be fitted with American subsystems. Australia could have 12 such submarines by 2050. It will become the only non-nuclear state to get US nuclear technology for its submarine fleet. This has generated a big debate on ‘do we need AUKUS’ or whether Australia is rubber-stamping US policy. Australia is already part of the US India Japan QUAD and its Navy has already been part of the Malabar Naval exercises. With the new Albanese government calling up to China and India sitting on the fence, QUAD and Malabar as serious deterrents to China are questionable.
Australia’s new Defence Security Review, authored by former Defence Minister Stephen Smith and former CDS Air Marshal Angus Houston was released last week. Previously defence policy focused on defence of Australia and later, forward defence to the present when the China challenge of uncertainties and ambiguities has covered Australia. A defence expert told me in Sydney that the Chinese tried to strangle Australia and its economic coercion failed miserably. Distance and sea frontiers have made Australia safe and secure. There’s not been a single terrorist attack that makes Australia an attractive destination for trade and investment. However, fears of illegal immigrants have magnified. Last Saturday Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was in Sydney transiting from a visit to Fiji. India-Australia relations are on a high. Canberra considers New Delhi one of its most important partners in the Indo-Pacific. Prime Ministers Morrison and Modi signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2020, the Economic Strategy Update in 2022, and Australia India Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2022. The Australian government is setting up the Centre for Australia-India Relations like the Australia India Council set up 30 years ago.
Today 50,000 Indian students are helping the Australian higher education sector rebound after the pandemic. India-Australia defence cooperation traces its origins in the trenches of Gallipoli in World War I. Two agreements underpin defence ties – the 2006 Memorandum of Defence Cooperation; and the 2009 Joint Declaration in Security Cooperation. A joint working group on joint research and military cooperation has been set up. Joint exercises are regularly held between the three services. In 2015, the first formal bilateral naval exercise was held off the coast of Visakhapatnam and these are held every two years. In addition, the Milan fleet review has the Australian Navy participating. A maritime partnership exercise off Perth last year involved several ships and helicopters. IAF Su30 and C17 aircraft participated in Exercise Pitch Black. This was followed by another international Exercise Kakadu 2022. The Australian Navy participated in RIMPAC, an Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2022 Exercise.
The focus of India-Australia military cooperation is in the maritime domain in support of an open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific as stated by Defence Minister Richard Marles. Australian High Commissioner in India, Barry O’Farrell has said that joint defence activities had experienced a nearly fourfold increase since 2014. The upgrade of ties was reflected in the recent 2+2 dialogue between Finance and Defence Ministers. The Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement entered into force on 29 December 2022 will allow tariff-free trade of 85 to 90 percent of the goods. India-Australia defence ties have come a long way since the expulsion of the Defence Advisor.