By Dr Dalbir Ahlawat Senior Lecturer, Department of Security Studies and Criminology, Macquarie University
The G7 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summits held in the last week of June 2022 proved historic as, for the first time, NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept document indicated China as a ‘systemic challenge’ to Euro-Atlantic security. Thus, the US and the European countries identified China as a significant challenge to the rules-based international order. These summits also expressed concerns about Beijing’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, major leaders from this region were also invited. Witnessing a shift in the balance of power in the region, prime ministers of Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, the president of South Korea attended the NATO summit, and the prime minister of India participated at the G7 summit.
A statement by the NATO Secretary-General that China’s growing ‘assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences for the security of allies and partners’; therefore, NATO must stand with its partners to preserve the rules-based international order. In addition, the declaration of Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment at the G7 summit with $600 billion in investment funds during the next five years appears to offer a viable alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, China has countered these developments as the Asia-Pacificization of NATO, which is ‘wrong and dangerous’ and will inevitably lead to ‘consequences’ for the regional countries.
The above developments fit well in the geostrategic calculus of Australia and India. Both countries have crossed the threshold of the indecisive stage and have converged their interests to build a symbiotic relationship. More explicitly, these were witnessed when in an unprovoked incident in Galwan Valley, 20 Indian soldiers were killed; in reaction, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed in June 2020 that ‘the sacrifice of Indian soldiers killed’ wouldn’t go waste. Similarly, in the case of Australia, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison taking note of the antecedents of the last couple of years, asserted in April 2022, ‘You cannot compromise when you’re standing up to an authoritarian government that is seeking to impose its will on the region’. This stance was further supported by a recent 2022 Lowy Institute poll in which around 65% of Australians considered China a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests.
To overcome these regional challenges, Australia and India supported the Indo-Pacific geostrategic construct and also joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) along with Japan and the United States. At the bilateral level, they entered into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), signed Mutual Logistic Support Arrangement (MLSA), and conducted joint military exercises. Notwithstanding these measures, their combined efforts to maintain a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region fall short of matching a rising China and deter Beijing’s unilateral actions in their respective regions of influence, South Asia for India and the Pacific Islands for Australia.
The G7 and NATO declarations offer opportunities for Australia and India to play a proactive role in their respective regions. Currently, the small island states are swayed by China with heavy investments, aid and trade with the broader objective of taking these islands into the BRI fold. Therefore, developing a relationship of dependency and indebtedness and ultimately resulting in a debt-equity swap, Sri Lanka appears to be a startling example of this. China’s presence in the small island states poses strategic challenges, as was recently witnessed with the signing of a secret security agreement with the Solomon Islands. In countries like Sri Lanka, reverberation can be felt with the island standing on the verge of bankruptcy and other island states feeling economic uncertainty. At this critical juncture, Australia and India can assuage these island states’ major concerns, such as climate change effects, quality infrastructure development, and transparent development agreements. These can be supported with a small proportion of the $600 billion committed at the G7 summit. Thus, Australia and India can offer a credible alternative to the BRI projects.
In addition, there are three choke points, Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok straits in the Indian Ocean, from where 60% of international maritime trade passes. India is establishing a tri-partite command at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; Australia, too, may consider similar development on Cocos (Keeling) Islands. As a result, both countries could maintain order at sea, control the flow of unauthorised boat arrivals, and reduce the threat of piracy.
Furthermore, without a viable alternative, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is hard-pressed between maintaining trade relations and resolving territorial disputes with China. Australia and India fully support the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, both countries need to assure the ASEAN of a binding long-term partnership to address the shared security challenges.
Considering the above scenarios, it is an opportune time for Australia and India to transcend their territorial waters and play a more proactive role in the Indo-Pacific region. Both have signed several security agreements with Japan and South Korea, and the presence of the latter two countries at the NATO summit indicates complementarity of interests. Furthermore, the ASEAN states perceive Australia and India as approachable and an alternative to China’s hegemonic overtures.
It is quite pertinent that China is widely considered a hegemon that has been signalling to use hard power to pursue its interests, specifically regarding Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and border disputes with India.
Australia and India can enhance their regional profile by simply harmonising their Indo-Pacific strategies with the G7 and NATO declarations that China should follow the UN Charter that enumerates peaceful settlement of disputes and abstain from coercion and intimidation measures or use of force. Now is the time for Australia and India to synergise their bilateral relations, take into confidence the ASEAN and other major countries in the region, and harmonise their policy postures with the G7 and NATO to build a multilateral forum to strengthen a rules-based, peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region, based on the precept of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” (cooperation of all, development of all).