The first leader that PM Modi chose to interact with in the virtual mode owing to the Coronavirus Pandemic is Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The all-important bilateral virtual summit between PM Modi and PM Morrison happened on Thursday, and the two sides upgraded their relationship to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’.
One of the biggest breakthroughs of the virtual summit is the inking of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) that increases military inter-operability by allowing each other’s navies to access military bases for logistical support. This move comes amidst the ever-increasing importance that the two countries place on strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific Region in the backdrop of growing Chinese belligerence and presence.
With the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, India and Australia can access each other’s ports for logistics such as food, water, and petroleum. This is similar to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between India and the United States.
India and Australia share a common concern in the domain of defence and maritime cooperation- China. Australia is concerned about growing Chinese presence in the Pacific, while India is concerned about Beijing’s growing influence and activities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
With this agreement, the two countries want to enhance co-operation in the Indo-Pacific, and the Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation too underscores the shared concern of both the countries.
The document states, “As two key Indo-Pacific countries, India and Australia have an enduring interest in a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region. They have a shared interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region, and maintaining open, safe and efficient sea lanes for transportation and communication.”
This is an indirect, yet loud and clear, message to China which has been bullying other countries in the South China Sea, and disrupting the sea lanes for transportation with its “nine-dash line” theory wherein it claims historical maritime rights in 90 per cent of the disputed areas in the strategic waterways, as far as 2,000 kilometres away from mainland China in violation of international maritime law.
India and Australia have underscored that they have a shared vision which ensures freedom of navigation. This is crucial for Canberra as it wants to protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as a trade route.
Through the MLSA, Australia can access India’s military base in the Andamans and look over Chinese activities close to the Strait of Malacca that connects the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.
For India, this is a huge breakthrough in its race with China for greater influence in the Indian Ocean Region. With this, India can expand its influence to the South of Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Currently, India’s geographical presence is such that it can exercise influence only to the Northwest of the strategically crucial Malacca Strait.
As a result, much of the much of the vast South-eastern approaches to the Malacca Strait become a blind spot for India. But with access to Australian military bases either on the Islands or coastal areas, India can watch over this part of the IOR.
With passage of time, the MLSA can also pave way for India’s increasing role in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is a part of the Central Indo-Pacific, and the United States has been pushing India for a broader role in the Indo-Pacific.
It is not a matter of surprise that during his virtual conversation with PM Modi, Scott Morrison underlined the importance of the relationship that the two countries have with the “partners in the Region”, particularly Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and the United States. He also stressed the importance of multilateralism that is providing a “basis of stability in our Region.”
Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia, as also the US, are all stakeholders against the Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea and East China Sea. For New Delhi, this could be an opportunity to use its naval power in the Region and use it as a deterrent against Chinese belligerence on the LAC that is currently playing out in Eastern Ladakh.
The MLSA strengthens India-Australia cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which is the bedrock of deep ties between the two countries. The Agreement is likely to make the two countries much bigger players by giving them access to strategic areas that were earlier outside their area of influence. With this, PM Modi and his Australian counterpart- Scott Morrison plan on cutting the Dragon to size.