By Christopher Kremmer
Australia’s relations with India have passed another milestone with the first ever visit by an Indian Minister of Defence taking place this week.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony kicked off his historic visit in the Western Australian capital, Perth, hosted by his Australian counterpart Stephen Smith. The city is home to several significant Australian Defence Force establishments, including Australia’s Indian Ocean Naval Base, HMAS Stirling.
The visit occurs at a time when political and economic relations between India and Australia are undergoing steady growth in terms of trade and two-way political and scholarly exchanges.
The recent 2013 Australian Defence White Paper outlined the profound strategic changes that are occurring as economic, strategic and military weight shifts towards what Australia is now officially calling the “Indo-Pacific region”.
Welcoming Mr Antony, Mr Smith said “India and Australia have a shared interest in helping to address these strategic changes, including through Defence collaboration. Minister Antony’s historic visit is indicative of the increasing importance and depth of the Australia‑India bilateral relationship, including Defence-to-Defence and Military-to-Military cooperation.”
Mr Smith said that in 2009, the two countries’ Prime Ministers had upgraded the bilateral relationship to a Strategic Partnership and issued a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. This had provided the framework for moves to effect closer and more regular collaboration on shared security interests.
Current co-operation is, however, modest, confined largely to ship visits and professional exchanges.
After a wreath-laying at the State War Memorial in Perth, and a reception in Minister Antony’s honour attended by prominent members of Western Australian and Indian academic, business and community organisations, the two ministers flew to Canberra to participate in the formal Australia-India Defence Ministers’ Dialogue on Wednesday. Mr Antony was also expected to meet Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose successful effort to overturn her Labor Party's ban on uranium sales to India is widely credited with removing an important obstacle to improving relations.
The visit assumes added significance given its timing which comes before a deferred visit to China by Mr Antony. The China visit was due to have taken place on May 19 after tensions between Beijing and New Delhi over their shared border in the Ladakh region. Instead, the Indian Defence minister has undertaken an Indo-Pacific tour which included Singapore and Australia, with a further stop scheduled in Thailand.
Minister Antony's tour follows visits by India's Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to Japan and Thailand days earlier. Expanded Indian military ties with both nations were reportedly "high on the agenda".
An analysis of India's latest regional outreach published in the Indian Express newspaper noted that "While the (Indian) Defence Ministry has consistently ruled out taking part in multilateral naval exercises after the 2007 Malabar exercises that had prompted a sharp Chinese reaction, Antony is expected to receive requests for renewing such interactions during his tour, given the increasing military aggressiveness that Beijing has adopted in recent months."
The Malabar exercises took place in the strategically sensitive Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean, and involved Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Australia and the United States militaries.
Singapore has an agreement with New Delhi under which it can train its infantry and armoured troops, as well as fighter pilots, in India, and the two nations share intelligence. Thailand is also emerging as an important partner in military co-operation and defence equipment procurement. Dr Singh and his Thai hosts both expressed interest in defence industry collaborations. Enhanced joint patrolling of the common maritime boundary between the two nations was also on the agenda, and India has stationed new military assets in Nicobar, including a new naval air station that will significantly increase surveillance and interdiction capabilities.
On Australia-India military ties, the India Express reported that "While the two nations have not had a strong history of bilateral military ties, there have been recent efforts to scale up cooperation, specially in the maritime domain where common interests exist. Besides scaling up joint training exercises, measures will be discussed to increase exchanges of officers and military personnel between the two nations."