US-Australia-India: A possible new alliance


US-Australia-India: A possible new alliance

Dec 8th, 2011 4 min read

Commentary By

Lisa Curtis

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Walter Lohman

Director, Asian Studies Center

It is wrong to view the proposed India-Australia-US cooperation agreement as a military pact being planned to contain the rising influence of China.

The proposal seeks to enhance the levels of security cooperation, along with working on other issues of mutual interest and concern, among the three countries. One such issue of common interest is maritime security whose dynamics are rapidly changing. Such an alliance would serve India’s interests

As advocates of trilateral cooperation among the US, Australia and India, we have watched with interest the attention given to the issue in the Indian media over the last week.

We released a report on the topic in November in New Delhi and Sydney. The primary goal of our report, authored by scholars from Australia’s Lowy Institute and India’s Observer Research Foundation, entitled Shared Goals, Converging Interests: A Plan for US-Australia-India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, is to encourage cooperation across a broad range of shared interests, from maritime security to counter-terrorism to non-proliferation, and many other areas.

The idea is being floated just as the new US-Japan-India trilateral initiative is about to be formally launched in Washington later this month. It also comes amidst a decision by Australia’s Labour Party to lift its ban on uranium exports to India — a major gesture by Australia’s ruling party in the future of Australia-India relations.

Given the amount of groundwork already done on the Japan dialogue, it is understandable that policy-makers want to focus their attention there first. But the concept of an India-US trilateral with Australia has a very similar logic to it. It is an idea whose time is now.

Each side of the triangle is already in development. On the strongest side, the US and Australia have a robust security alliance, involving joint military facilities, major multi-service combined exercises, co-development of weapon systems and joint strategic planning. As for the US and India, in 2005 they signed a 10-year defence framework agreement, and today, India conducts more military exercises with the US than any other nation. On the India-Australia side, the parties issued the 2009 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation and have proceeded with bilateral talks between service chiefs and security advisers.

One of the most promising areas for trilateral cooperation is enhancing maritime security and maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. Two-thirds of Indian oil and gas imports transit the Indian Ocean waters, and most of Australia’s resource exports transit East Asian waterways to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

India is steadily building up its naval capabilities, giving particular attention to its Eastern Naval Command’s role in its overall naval strategy and foreign policy. Three years ago, India convened the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, inviting participants from the littoral states — including Australia — to discuss maritime security.

India, the US and Australia should begin discussing a code of conduct for naval vessels and other maritime activities in the region and an action plan for dealing with violations of such a code. The three powers should consider what would be the best forum for managing this code: Perhaps an enhanced version of IONS or a new forum with conditions of entry based on capabilities, interests, willingness to contribute, and a demonstrated willingness to abide by the rules.

Furthermore, the US and Australia should encourage India to join the multilateral Combined Task Force 151 anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. As its naval capabilities grow, India should participate in multinational efforts to address piracy and maintain freedom of the seas.

The report also highlights the potential for the three countries to increase consultations and intelligence sharing on terrorist networks, both at home and abroad.

Washington, Canberra and New Delhi share the goal of preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a haven for international terrorists. Given several roadblocks the US has hit with its strategy in Afghanistan in the last few months, including last week’s Nato attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghanistan border, it is clear the conflict is far from over. And it’s a conflict that has enormous implications for trends in global terrorism that affect all three nations.

With India’s extensive — and Australia’s growing — development programmes in Afghanistan, Washington should work with both capitals to fortify Afghanistan’s institutions to preserve the democratic and human development gains made over the last decade. Washington and Canberra should fully support New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan, noting that it has every right to safeguard its interests there.

On non-proliferation, the three countries can help develop fresh thinking about India’s relationship with the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty and the global non-proliferation regime that accounts for the reality that India is both a highly responsible actor when it comes to non-proliferation, but is also unlikely to join the treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state.

The US first substantially acknowledged this during the Bush Administration with the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. US President Barack Obama has taken it to the next logical step with his stated intention to bring India into the four major non-proliferation groupings-the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, and Wassenaar.

The Australia Group is the easiest place to start India’s formal entry into the global export control network. Being the permanent chair of the grouping, Canberra could advise India on harmonising its export controls and encourage other members of the grouping to welcome India’s admission.

Some of the media coverage of the prospects for US-India-Australia trilateral cooperation is misleading. No one in his or her right mind believes a trilateral ‘security pact’ is in the offing. The goal is really to promote a stable and predictable order in the Indo-Pacific.

This is not to say that officials from the three countries should not compare notes regarding their China policies. All three are economically and diplomatically deeply engaged with China and, at the same time, hedging against the potential negative side of its rise. (Japan is in some variation of the same position.) There is great value in discussing the different contexts and experiences we have had trying to reconcile these approaches. And the outcome need not be all negative. Indeed, we may develop new, constructive ways of dialogue with the Chinese.

The US, Australia and India have ‘intersecting’, not ‘identical’ interests. There are things we disagree on. Geography alone dictates that we see the world from slightly different angles. But there is enough commonality in our world views and our challenges that we should consider those areas where our perspectives do overlap and work together where it is in our mutual interest.

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow and Walter Lohman is Director, Asian Studies, with the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Daily Pioneer