Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is to hold a virtual summit with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi this week. Photo: AFP

The prime ministers of India and Australia are scheduled to hold their maiden virtual bilateral summit this Thursday, June 4. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, both leaders have nimbly graduated to virtual platforms, engaging both domestic and global interlocutors, including summit meetings. 

Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison have been in touch since they first discussed initiating the Group of Twenty summit that took place on March 26. Interestingly, their last phone call on April 6 underlined the “wider significance” of their bilateral relations, and this is likely to guide their bilateral cooperation increasingly.

First, in the immediate backdrop of ever-intensifying US-China contestations – where President Donald Trump’s anti-China tirades are accompanied by US naval ships and aircraft patrolling the South China Sea – this India-Australia sentiment for widening their perspectives seems clearly driven by their dichotomy of shared geopolitical anxieties flowing from their security dependence on the US and their enormous economic engagement with China. 

So they want to promote their preferred “inclusive” Indo-Pacific version and support diplomatic initiatives like recent US engagements with the “Quad Plus” network of seven nations that add South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand to the core Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. This wider template promises to help India and Australia sustain their time-tested hedging and balancing between the US and China as those two powers inch toward a new cold war.

Supporting Quad Plus

Second, having critical stakes in the unfolding this Quad Plus narrative, India and Australia also wish to institutionalize further their maritime cooperation that was first conceptualized in their 2014 Framework for Security Cooperation. This could strengthen their influence in molding this Quad Plus formulation.

The 2014 framework was signed during Prime Minister Modi’s maiden visit to Australia that came after a gap of 28 years of the Cold War era. Modi and Morrison have come a long way from there and are now expected to sign a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and upgrade their 2+2 dialogue from secretarial to ministerial level.

The two countries started bilateral naval exercises – AUSINDEX – in 2015, which saw their largest third iteration in April last year focused on anti-submarine warfare. This shows that in addressing security challenges both have come increasingly conscious of China’s expanding submarine fleet and its growing presence across the Indian Ocean.

This China consciousness may also see Australia finally join the coveted Malabar annual naval exercises that India and the US have been conducting since 1992. Japan was added to these as a permanent member only in 2015, and Australia has been bidding to join as well.

Indeed, during 2007 – when the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was first initiated – Japan, Australia and Singapore joined the Malabar exercise as non-permanent members. Japan was later invited a few times before joining it as a permanent member.

During the 2018 Malabar exercises held off the coast of Guam – for the first time in US territory – the same China consciousness led India to reject Australia’s bid to join. In the backdrop of a revival of the Quad in 2017 – the year that also saw a 10-week-long China-India border standoff at Doklam – Modi’s visit to China in early May that year gave him enough reason for this clear-headed opposition to Australia.

WHO as new war theater

Third, the World Health Organization is another theater that will now test India’s and Australia’s diplomatic finesse. Soon after Covid-19 put the global spotlights on the WHO, Australia was seen unleashing a global campaign for investigations into the origins of the virus. This led the World Health Assembly last month to adopt a resolution to that effect. 

India, on the other hand, now occupies three top positions in the WHO – chair of the Executive Board, deputy director general, and external auditor – and is expected to take a clear position on taking this investigation forward.  

For its part, Australia, which went through a public spat with Beijing, is now looking for an easy exit to protect its beef and barley exports to China. This opens avenues for India-Australia parleys to explore joint strategies to address this conundrum.

They need once again to fine-tune strategies of balancing between China and the US, which are vehemently pulling the WHO in opposite directions. President Xi Jinping wants any probe into Covid-19 to wait until world has overcome the outbreak and focus instead on the global response to the pandemic, while President Trump has issued a 30-day ultimatum, threatening to withdraw financial support and membership with expressed intent of using this probe to go after China.

The China connection

Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on regional economies, which calls for their continued engagement with China – the only major nation that has come out of the crisis and revived economic momentum. Australia would also like India to resume negotiations to join the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Australia hopes to open up India’s markets for its dairy products, though India had refused to sign on to RCEP last November exactly for that reason. Alternatively, India and Australia will also feel impelled to revive their negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that have been dormant since they began in 2011. 

In this week’s summit, Modi and Morrison are expected to sign a new education pact to encourage joint research but also help to Australian universities overcome their excessive dependence on student intake from China.

Through this balancing, China and the US are likely to see India and Australia coming closer. Indeed, all recent Australian prime ministers – Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – have visited India, and Morrison was due to visit New Delhi in January this year. His visit was canceled because of bush fires back home, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But by choosing each other for their first virtual bilateral summit, both have attached top priority to synergizing their cooperation. Nothing explains it better than Cricket Australia announcing on Friday that it would host the Indian cricket team starting in October. Cricket represents the strongest bridge between these two nations and initiating these test series is expected to become a potential game-changer and also a leading money spinner for the future world of sports.

Professor Swaran Singh is chairman of the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.