Bernie Lai, Foreign Affairs, Defence and
Australia and India have developed closer strategic and economic ties in recent years. This closer partnership is anticipated to continue to flourish due to both countries’ shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region. However, India’s ongoing human rights issues may present obstacles to Australia’s continued pursuit of mutual strategic and economic interests.
Australia has recently elevated its bilateral relationship
with India to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), which has laid the
foundations for the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (AI
ECTA), deeper engagement through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and
increased defence cooperation, among other things. The strengthening of ties
between both countries will likely continue to gain momentum, given their converging
strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region characterised by China’s growing
Comprehensive Strategic Partnership
In June 2020, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison
and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed their commitment to strengthening
Australia-India ties for the long term and committed to elevating
the bilateral Strategic Partnership concluded in 2009 to a CSP. Under the
CSP, both countries decided to work together in 11 areas of cooperation:
- enhancing science, technology and research collaboration
- maritime cooperation for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific
- defence cooperation
- regional and multilateral cooperation
- countering terrorism
- economic cooperation
- innovation and entrepreneurship
- agriculture cooperation and water resources management
- education, culture, tourism and people-to-people ties
- support in UN and international bodies
- public administration and governance.
With these initiatives and the high-level dialogues
facilitating them, the CSP
has been seen as a vehicle that allows Australia to develop a bilateral
relationship with India ‘in a formal and regularised setting that falls short
of an alliance’. Equally, India has used comprehensive strategic partnerships ‘as
part of a concerted strategy to broaden and enmesh networks of political and
defence cooperation, often aimed at keeping external nations involved in the [Indo-Pacific]
region’, according to Henry
Storey (The Interpreter).
Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade
A 2018 independent report
to the Australian Government as a roadmap to deepen economic integration with
India, An India economic strategy to 2035, argues that ‘no country would offer more growth
opportunities for Australian businesses than India over the coming decades’ (p.
6). In April 2022, Australia and India signed the interim AI ECTA but fell
short of concluding a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) after
9 rounds of negotiations since 2011. Nevertheless, the AI ECTA is the first
step towards a full CECA, with both countries having committed to concluding
negotiations on a CECA by the end of 2022.
The AI ECTA is reportedly expected
to almost double annual bilateral trade from US$27.5 billion in 2021 to US$45 billion in the
next 5 years. The trade deal
will eliminate tariffs on over 85% of Australian exports to India, rising to
almost 91% over a decade, while 96% of Indian imports entering Australia will
become duty-free. However, India’s continued trade protectionism amid domestic political pressures has meant that various agricultural and dairy products, such as wheat, rice, chickpeas and beef, are
excluded from tariff reduction or elimination in the AI ECTA. It is likely that
Australia will face challenges in persuading India to ease trade barriers in
these areas in future CECA negotiations, as agriculture
coupled with its allied sectors is the largest source of livelihoods in India.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) (pp. 4–5), the AI ECTA is intended to address
Australia’s need for trade diversification due to the risks of market
concentration highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, US- China trade tensions and
Australia’s recent bilateral trade challenges. In April 2022 while still in
opposition, the now Prime Minister Albanese identified ‘the difficult situation with our exports
to China’ as a reason for Australia’s ‘need to get more serious about trade
diversification’. There also appear to be similar concerns on India’s part,
with one commentator suggesting that the AI ECTA was partly enabled by India’s ‘China-exclusive’ approach to securing trade agreements. Also of relevance is
that the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative launched by Australia, India and Japan in April 2021
reportedly aims to reduce supply chain dependencies on China and has been seen as conducive for the AI ECTA.
Further, DFAT has stated (p. 13) that the AI ECTA will contribute to strengthening the CSP and will support
Australia in its implementation of the March 2022 India economic strategy update, which the Morrison Government agreed to in its August 2021 response to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and
Investment Growth’s report, Pivot: diversifying Australia’s trade and investment
On 16 June 2022, the
Minister for Trade and Tourism, Don Farrell, confirmed to his Indian counterpart, Piyush Goyal, ‘the Australian Government’s intention
to work efficiently though Australia’s parliamentary processes to ratify the [AI-ECTA]
quickly, so we can deliver immediate trade benefits for our countries’. They
also ‘committed to [moving] rapidly to commence negotiations on the full CECA and
capitalise on the enormous potential for closer economic ties between Australia
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue
The Quad, comprising
Australia, India, Japan and the US, is one of the most notable multilateral
forums through which Australia and India have strengthened their bilateral
relationship. It is increasingly seen as a counterweight to China’s regional ambitions in the Indo-Pacific,
although India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has reportedly said ‘The Quad is about the world, and I would not like to see it reduced to
China’. See the article on 'Australia's security relationships' elsewhere in this Briefing
book for further detail.
In May 2022, Prime
Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong attended the fourth Quad
Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo. Ahead of his visit to Japan, India’s Prime Minister Modi indicated that he looked forward to discussing bilaterally with
Prime Minister Albanese ‘the multifaceted cooperation between India and
Australia under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,
and regional and global issues of mutual interest’.
While in Tokyo, the Quad members also discussed their respective response to the Russia- Ukraine
conflict and its associated humanitarian crisis. As Russia has long been an
arms supplier to India, India has not publicly condemned Russia and has
abstained from several key United Nations votes over its invasion. While some commentary has suggested that India’s nonalignment stance may complicate the
Australia- India relationship, Indian officials have noted that Australia and
other Quad members have expressed understanding or appreciation of India’s position on the Ukraine issue. In March 2022, a US official reportedly
claimed that India had cancelled military purchases from Russia in response to the Ukraine situation,
although there are also reports that no formal decision has been made on such cancellation.
There have also been mixed
views about the impact of AUKUS, the Australia- UK- US security pact, on the Quad’s
value for India. Some have suggested that AUKUS might weaken the Quad’s strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and its capability to act as a
counterweight to China’s ambitions in the region, with the Quad being reduced
to dealing with issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. However,
it has been pointed out that the Quad ‘is not an Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO)’ or a miliary arrangement.
Instead, it is a network of 4 democracies with a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Others have posited that the
creation of AUKUS serves India’s interests in a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific by allowing the Quad to maintain its broad non-military agenda and thus allowing India to maintain its strategic
autonomy- without directly involving India in an alliance that has been seen as
explicitly anti-China. As Manjari Chatterjee Miller (Council on Foreign
Relations) puts it, ‘the Quad keeps the door open for India for close defense
cooperation without resorting to a security alliance’. In any case, India’s
Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, has reportedly said that AUKUS ‘has neither relevance to Quad, nor will it have any
impact on its functioning’.
In recent years, Australia
and India have increased their defence cooperation, which is now a key pillar
of the India- Australia partnership that encompasses almost every major function of the military. However, an Indian Navy veteran has suggested that the disparity between the technological capabilities
of India and Australia, as well as the platforms each operate, needs to be
gradually bridged for bilateral cooperation to become more effective.
During the March 2022 India- Australia Virtual Summit, prime ministers Modi and Morrison reaffirmed their
commitment to their CSP, and on defence cooperation they:
- agreed to deepen cooperation to address
security and defence threats and challenges
- welcomed the establishment of the General
Rawat India- Australia Young Defence Officer Exchange Program
- welcomed enhanced maritime information-sharing
and maritime domain awareness
- affirmed their commitment to build upon
defence information-sharing arrangements to coordinate more closely across the
- looked forward to India’s participation in
Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise in 2022
- underscored the importance of reciprocal
access arrangements in facilitating deeper operational defence cooperation and
its contribution towards free and open critical regional maritime corridors
- reaffirmed following up on opportunities
for further defence cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
As part of the CSP, in
June 2020 the Secretaries 2+2 dialogue for defence and foreign affairs was
upgraded to the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, which was first held in September 2021 and is scheduled to resume in 2023. Both countries also established the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA) and the
Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement (DSTIA). The MLSA aims
to enhance military interoperability, enable increasingly complex military
engagement and increase combined responsiveness to regional humanitarian
disasters. The DSTIA aims to facilitate improved collaboration between both
countries’ defence research organisations.
Troy Lee-Brown (The Strategist) points out that ‘the vulnerabilities of some Russian
military equipment that are now being exposed by Ukrainian and Western
countermeasures’ will be a reality check for India’s longstanding overreliance
on Russian arm supplies. He then posits that the Russia- Ukraine conflict provides
opportunities for Australia and India to enhance
their defence relationship by advancing their level of cooperation in both the MLSA
and the DSTIA. Australia and India could also pursue a security communications
agreement similar to what the US and India have had in place since the US
designated India as a ‘Major Defense Partner’ in 2016.
Meanwhile, predicting a
Labor Government in Australia will ‘likely be keen to broaden AUKUS to dampen
perceptions that it’s an Anglo-Saxon club’, David Brewster (The Interpreter) has suggested that there is considerable potential
for involving India in the high-end defence technology aspect of AUKUS in areas
such as artificial intelligence, and quantum and undersea technologies.
Nevertheless, Dr Brewster cautioned in 2017 that differences in Australia’s and India’s history, strategic
perspectives, size, wealth and culture could create many challenges for their
relationship, and that Australia needed to ‘decisively move beyond the box and
think more innovatively about its engagement with India’. He also noted that despite
both countries’ growing strategic convergences, practical defence and security cooperation
is very thin in comparison with Australia’s other partners.
India’s human rights issues
In May 2022 in Tokyo, the 4 Quad member leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, stated ‘We strongly
support the principles of freedom, rule of law, democratic values … peaceful
settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force … We will
continue to act decisively together to advance these principles in the region
and beyond’. However, some have suggested that any expectations on India to be
a robust advocate for democracy and democratic ideals through the Quad may not sit well with India, which is considered by some to have become an ‘illiberal majoritarian democracy’ under the Modi Government.
In recent years, various
human rights concerns in India have been raised by international governments, human
rights organisations and the media. These have included the revocation of the constitutional status of the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir in
2019; persecution of religious minorities, including
Muslims, by Hindu nationalists (and the Modi Government’s failure to crackdown
on such persecution); the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 that enshrines
a pathway to citizenship for immigrants specifically excluding Muslims, and violence against the Dalit community. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom
has recommended that the US Government designate India as a ‘country of particular concern’
for ‘engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations
of religious freedom’ and has said
that the Modi Government ‘used its strengthened parliamentary majority to
institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India,
especially for Muslims’. There have also been concerns about the Modi
Government’s crackdown on a range of civil and political rights, as reported by
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US Department of State.
Ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s
visit to Germany in early May 2022, Human Rights Watch suggested that European
governments should reconsider Europe’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach to the human rights situation in India, which had ‘led
to growing sentiment that Europe is willing to overlook the plight of affected
communities in India because it needs India as an ally against China and Russia’.
Similarly, as a country with a track record of condemning and responding
to other countries’ human rights abuses, Australia may be urged by human rights
groups to consider the implications of India’s ongoing human rights issues in
its continued pursuit of strategic and economic ties with India.
Hugh Piper (The Diplomat) argues that any silence by Australia on India’s human
… undermines Australia’s prosecution of human
rights issues with China and its broader strategy of handling a difficult
relationship with Beijing. While Canberra is right to call out repression in
Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among other issues, its failure to comment about India
plays into Beijing’s hands, suggesting that Australia’s advocacy is strategic
rather than genuine concern.
In terms of Australia and India ties, however,
silence on human rights in this growth phase of the relationship could
undermine its long-term success. By avoiding the topic now, Australia sets a
difficult precedent, making it harder to speak and act in the future without
causing major, even irreparable, damage to the bilateral relationship. The
longer human rights issues persist in India, the harder it will be for
Australia not to voice its concerns – and Canberra may well find itself
isolated for not doing so. Moreover, an India beset by internal divisions and
growing marginalization of democracy makes for a less reliable partner …
the implications of India’s human rights issues could amount to more than just those
concerning its reliability as a rising strategic and trade partner of Australia.
Any ethno-religious conflicts arising from the disintegration of religious
minorities in India, which include about 200 million Muslims, could lead to political instability and significant
disruption of India’s social fabric. Should there be any consequential outbreaks
of communal violence and religiously motivated attacks resulting in the
collapse of India as a key member of the Quad, it could then ‘degrade Australia’s
strategic environment across the vast Indo-Pacific’, according to Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General.
There are also domestic national
security reasons, mostly in social cohesion terms, for Australia to respond meaningfully
to India’s human rights issues. Noting the recent controversy over statements made by a Hindu-nationalist politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party
(which has been India’s ruling political party since 2014) during his visit to
Australia, there is the potential for the ethno-religious conflicts in India to
metamorphose into inter-diasporic conflicts in Australia. Further, Deepak Joshi (NRI Affairs) has suggested that Australia’s social cohesion is threatened
by Hindu extremism and claimed that there is ‘infiltration of Hindu extremist groups in Australian education, multicultural media and politics’.
As the Australian Greens’ former
foreign affairs spokesperson, Janet Rice, has proposed, the Australian Government could consider the
inclusion of binding human rights protection clauses or binding clauses
that commit to upholding democracy in any free
trade agreements with India (for example, the to-be-negotiated CECA). However, any proposed clauses of that nature would
likely serve as safeguards against future human rights violations, rather than
as responses to pre-existing problems. Most recently in 2019, the Morrison Government rejected the Greens’ recommendation that human rights
protection clauses be included in Australia’s free trade agreements with
Indonesia and Hong Kong (p. 6).
Following the enactment of the Autonomous
Sanctions Amendment (Magnitsky-style and Other Thematic Sanctions) Act 2021, the
Australian Government now
has the power to impose sanctions to address particular issues or
conduct (known as thematic sanctions), which include serious violations or
abuses of human rights and activities that undermine good governance or the
rule of law. While previously sanctions imposed by Australia have been
country-focused, these reforms now allow the Government to impose sanctions to
address a wider range of conduct (for example, human rights abuses),
irrespective of where the conduct occurs.
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