Australia-India Naval Cooperation and the Islands of the Indo-Pacific
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.
As India and Australia prepare for a virtual summit next month between prime ministers amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, a possible strategic initiative could involve the cooperative use of their respective island territories in the Indian Ocean for strategic purposes. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands are well positioned to offer significant advantages for both countries.
The strategic relationship between the two countries is currently underdeveloped despite strong converging interests. One challenge in the relationship comes from differences in priority theaters, with New Delhi in the Indian Ocean and Canberra in the Pacific. If New Delhi defines the Pacific as its secondary area of interest, then for Canberra the Indian Ocean is its second sea. Capacity limitations on both sides mean there is a challenge in deploying resources in secondary areas of interest.
A collaborative approach to utilizing their island territories in the Indian Ocean could provide an opportunity to address these challenges. These islands are located near strategic chokepoints and trading routes, with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands near the straits of Malacca, while the Cocos Islands lie in close proximity to the Indonesian straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai-Wetar. Together, these straits are the entry and exit points between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. In the current geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific, these islands can provide advantages for strategic, practical, and signaling purposes.
A key advantage of these islands is surveillance and what are known as maritime domain awareness missions. While the Malacca straits provide the busiest trading route connecting economies across the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, the other straits through the Indonesian archipelago offer alternate routes for surface and sub-surface vessels.
The Indian navy has recently confirmed the growing presence of Chinese ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean, with China reportedly deploying underwater drones in the Indian Ocean to conduct an oceanographic survey. These missions also gather critical data (e.g., temperature, depth, and salinity of water) necessary for submarine deployment and operations with Beijing carrying out similar surveys in the Pacific Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Cocos Islands would allow for both expanded and longer maritime domain awareness missions across these straits. It is, of course, understood that New Delhi and Canberra would have necessary conversations with Jakarta before undertaking any missions over the Indonesian straits.
Both India and Australia already use their islands for maritime surveillance and reconnaissance missions using P-8 aircraft based in southern India and Australia. A joint coordinated effort utilizing island territories through mutual access agreements would allow India and Australia to expand their presence and maritime domain awareness missions beyond their respective individual capacities.
For India, access will allow for easier monitoring of an expanded area around the Malacca and Indonesian straits, from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the north to the Cocos Islands in the south. Tracking submarines in open seas is an extremely difficult task and requires significant resources and capital. Chokepoints provide windows for tracking submarines, making the islands critical assets. These islands provide an opportunity for coordinated and joint anti-submarine warfare missions in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
While Canberra also has staging options in Darwin, Australia and Butterworth, Malaysia, for surveillance missions, access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would bring Australia to the heart of the Indian Ocean. It would allow Australia to expand its presence into the Indian Ocean for longer and more complex missions. Access to these islands would not only strengthen Australia’s interests in the eastern Indian Ocean but also provide a platform to increase its military engagement in the rest of the Indian Ocean — a current challenge in Australia’s Indian Ocean policy. Similarly, India stands to gain strategically with access to the Cocos Islands, expanding its reach and presence in the southeast Indian Ocean across the Indonesian straits and into the Pacific.
There is also a significant signaling advantage to a collaborative approach in using these islands. India-Australia collaboration around a group of strategic islands that have traditionally been closed to each other sends a strong political message across the Indo-Pacific region — one of deepening strategic trust between two key players of the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, it is likely that Australia will join the MALABAR naval exercises alongside India, Japan, and the United States in the near future, keeping in line with the frequent and growing diplomatic conversations between the Quad.
India and Australia can perhaps begin by using the Australia-India naval exercise (AUSINDEX) as a platform to fly their respective P-8s between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Cocos Islands for coordinated patrols. This action would allow both sides to test logistical and administrative challenges, laying the foundation for more complex and sustained missions in the future. This would require political agreement at the highest level.
The India-France relationship provides an example of such collaboration in the Indian Ocean. Earlier this year, Delhi deployed a P-8I maritime patrol aircraft to conduct joint patrols with France from La Reunion, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean. La Reunion’s location provides access and reach over the western and southwest Indian Ocean, including the Mozambique Channel.
There is potential for India-Australia-France collaboration in using their respective islands to boost their presence under a burden-sharing model. Such an approach could eventually be extended to other Indo-Pacific partners such as the United States and Japan. Joint collaboration through a burden-sharing model might help address capacity and resource constraints.
The upcoming summit between Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison will likely include the execution of a long-awaited mutual access and logistics facilities agreement similar to India’s existing arrangements with the United States and France. This will signal political will and smooth out administrative and logistical challenges — should New Delhi and Canberra choose to expand their strategic collaboration to island territories.
Darshana M. Baruah is a nonresident scholar with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Baruah is also currently a visiting fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Tokyo, where she is working on a book about the significance of strategic islands in the Indian Ocean region.
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