This month was a historic moment in the India-Australia bilateral relationship. Under our joint naval exercise known as AUSINDEX, we saw the largest ever peacetime deployment of Australian defence assets and personnel to India.
The third iteration of our bilateral naval exercise, AUSINDEX, which has just concluded (April 2-16), builds on a fourfold increase in our defence engagement — from 11 defence exercises, meetings and activities in 2014 to 38 in 2018. The Indian Navy’s Eastern Naval Command hosted an impressive array of high-end Australian military hardware, including the Royal Australian Navy’s flagship, HMAS Canberra and the submarine, HMAS Collins. The Canberra is the size of a small aircraft carrier. She can carry over 1,000 troops and 16 helicopters. These vessels were joined by frigates, aircraft and around 1,200 sailors, soldiers and airmen and women.
As well as being Australia’s largest defence deployment to India, the exercise was the most complex ever carried out between our defence forces. For the first time, our navies undertook anti-submarine warfare exercises. And in a similar show of trust and cooperation, Indian and Australian maritime patrol P-8 aircraft flew coordinated missions over the Bay of Bengal.
The strategic trust on display during AUSINDEX is representative of a deepening strategic alignment between our countries. When Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, visited India earlier this year, in January, she emphasised our shared outlook as free, open and independent democracies, as champions of international law, as supporters of an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and as firm believers that ‘might is not right’. These shared values underline our deepening cooperation.
A key element of Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy is partnering with India in the vibrant Indian Ocean Region. India is a leader in this region and Australia is a natural partner for addressing shared challenges. We must continue to work together to combat transnational crime, terrorism, people smuggling, and illegal fishing, in order that we may all enjoy a peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean Region.
As the nation with one of the longest Indian Ocean coastlines and with more than half of our goods trade departing Indian Ocean ports, Australia is committed to addressing humanitarian and environmental challenges in our Indian Ocean neighbourhood.
Australia is playing its part in the Indo-Pacific region through major new initiatives in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. We are undertaking a substantial step up in our support for Pacific Island countries. In November 2018 we announced the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific. This AU$2 billion initiative will boost Australia’s support for infrastructure development in Pacific countries.
Our security relationships with Pacific Island countries have also been enhanced. We will establish a Pacific Fusion Centre to provide real-time surveillance data for countries across the region as well as enhancing policing and military training both bilaterally and through regional centres.
We are also building on our significant diplomatic and economic relationships with Southeast Asia to build resilience and prosperity in our region. Our recently announced Southeast Asia Economic Governance and Infrastructure Initiative, worth AU$121 million, will help unlock Southeast Asia’s next wave of economic growth.
All this activity is happening against the backdrop of a rapidly expanding India-Australia relationship. Our people-to-people and economic links are on the rise. The Indian diaspora in Australia is both strong and growing. One in 50 Australians today was born in India; almost 90,000 Indian students studied in Australia last year; and over 350,000 tourists visited Australia from India in 2018. We are working together to see India become a top three trading partner for Australia by 2035.
So, on the one hand, we should welcome the successful AUSINDEX exercise as a step up in our strategic partnership. At the same time, we should recognise it also as the natural next step in a friendship between Australia and India that is marked by growing trust, understanding and camaraderie. That is really something to celebrate.
Harinder Sidhu is the Australian High Commissioner to India
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