India, Australia and the United States in the Indian Ocean Region: A Growing Strategic Convergence

12 May 2011 FDI Team

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Despite the lack of success of a number of past initiatives, now may be the time to consider an India-Australia-United States trilateral security architecture. Such an arrangement would not only benefit all three countries themselves, but also the Indian Ocean region as a whole. Under such an arrangement, the three countries would be better placed to synergise their efforts, given their large number of common interests. It would thus contribute to a stable, peaceful and multi-polar Indian Ocean region.


Given the emerging security scenario in the Indo-Pacific region, where all three countries face challenges from terrorism and non-traditional security threats such as piracy, drug trafficking, serious communicable diseases, illegal immigration and environmental security, it is timely to explore the merits of a trilateral regional security architecture consisting of India, Australia and the United States.

In November 2009, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited India. During his visit it was jointly agreed to elevate the Australia-India relationship to the level of a strategic partnership. A Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation was issued, with both countries committing to boosting defence and security co-operation, regional and multilateral co-operation, economic engagement, co-operation in energy, climate change and water resources and the increasing of science and education links through knowledge partnership.

Despite booming trading ties – with exports worth $18.2 billion, India became Australia’s  third-largest export market in 2009 – there are still a few areas of concern. The incidents of attacks on Indian students in Australia did a great deal of damage, especially in India where the stories were latched on to by the media. The attacks did a significant amount of damage to Australia's education industry, given that there are more than 90,000 Indian students in Australia – and many more waiting in the wings. Australia has emerged as the second-most sought after destination for Indian students, overtaking the United Kingdom. Indian students make up the second-largest group of students in Australia after the Chinese; the education sector is Australia's third-largest foreign exchange earner after coal and iron ore. 

Shared Interests

One of the most seminal developments of the twenty-first century has been the rapid economic and military rise of China. It is the world’s fastest growing economy and has come out of the world economic meltdown largely unscathed. India is not too far behind, with the second-fastest growing economy. 

The economic potential of China and India is aptly illustrated by the Carnegie Endowment report The G-20 in 2050, which says that ‘by 2050, the United States and Europe will be joined in economic size by emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. China will become the world’s largest economy in 2032, and grow to be 20 per cent larger than the United States by 2050. [1]

India, Australia and the United States have their own anxieties about China, which was reflected in the setting up of a new grouping on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila: the Quadrilateral Initiative in May 2007, involving Japan, Australia, India and the United States. Although the Quadrilateral Initiative soon fizzled out as none of the countries wanted to antagonise China, something similar could be resurrected between the US, Australia and India in the near future.

Indian strategic planners have been voicing concerns over China’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy, seeing it as an attempt to enclose India in the Indian Ocean region. China has funded ports and refuelling stations in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), and Burma (Sittwe and Kyaukpyu), much to India’s chagrin. Recent media reports from China indicate that it has developed its first stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20, and an anti-ship ballistic missile that could sink US aircraft carriers. The newly-developed “D” version of China's DF-21 medium-range missile could potentially change the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific by forcing US vessels to operate at a greater distance from potential conflict zones.

Maritime co-operation is one of the most important areas of co-operation between India, Australia and the United States. The Indian Navy in the post 9/11 period has participated in escort and joint patrolling activities in the region. India’s location places it adjacent to one of the world’s most vital sea-lanes stretching from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, through which 55,000 ships and much of the oil from the Gulf region transit each year. Conservative estimates suggest that US$200 billion worth of oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz annually and US$60 billion through the Malacca Strait.  

It was only after the end of the Cold War that India and the US – the world’s two largest democracies – started getting closer to each other. Although India’s nuclear tests gave a temporary jolt to the relationship, President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000 signalled that the US-India relationship had come of age. India’s location, strong economy and huge pool of highly qualified technical talent have helped to make it increasingly important to the US. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal is ample testimony to the changed dynamics of the relationship between the two countries. The signing of the bilateral Agreement for Co-operation Regarding the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy on 10 October 2008 effectively marked the end of India’s nuclear isolation. 

In June 2010, the Indian and US Governments held the inaugural Indo-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington, which focussed on five major areas: strategic co-operation; energy and climate change; education and development; economics, trade and agriculture; and science, technology, health and innovation. Though the two countries would not like to admit it, they share concerns about the rise of China, not only in Asia, but also on the global stage.  

Meanwhile, India, Australia and the US are co-operating in fora like the East Asia Summit, where the US will join at the top level from this year. Another area of co-operation is disaster relief. In the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, the US, Indian and Australian navies co-operated on an unprecedented scale in the rescue and relief efforts.  

Though principally bilateral in nature, anti-terror co-operation is yet another area of co-operation among the three countries. In August 2003, the Australian and Indian Foreign Ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding on counterterrorism and, in 2007, the two nations set up a bilateral Defence Information Sharing Arrangement to share information in the areas of counter-terrorism, maritime security and peacekeeping. Meanwhile, counter-terrorism co-operation between the US and India has yielded rich dividends. In June 2010, a four-member team from India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) interrogated US national David Coleman Headley, who stands accused of helping to plan the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. 

Is a Trilateral Security Architecture Feasible?

Given the common security interests of India, Australia and the US in the Indian Ocean region, a trilateral security architecture could definitely be firmed up. It may take the form of something akin to the TSD (Trilateral Strategic Dialogue) between Japan, the US and Australia which was announced in 2005 as a means to evolve a more cohesive security mechanism between the three allies. The three countries were to a large extent also successful in allaying China’s concerns that this initiative was directed against it. 

The main motives behind the TSD can be summarised as:

  • To accelerate the transformation of the traditional bilateral security politics of containment into a more co-operative multilateral security diplomacy;
  • To ensure a joint response to future emerging non-military threats; and
  • To ensure that Japan pursues its own national security agenda as a self-confident regional power.

 An India-Australia-US trilateral security architecture could also be some sort of a revival of the now-defunct Quadrilateral Initiative. It would help to achieve interoperability of forces and serve as a bulwark against the growing assertiveness of China in the region, a common concern of all three countries. 

In fact, as the 2009 Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific Century: Force 2030, notes, ‘China will also be the strongest Asian military power, by a considerable margin. A major power of  China's  stature  can  be  expected to  develop  a  globally  significant military  capability  befitting  its size. But the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans.’

During his trip to China in November 2009, US President Barack Obama had broached the idea of a G-2 (the US and China), but it was promptly dismissed by China. Since then, the rift between the US and China has widened. Obama’s tour of the Asian democracies – India, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia – in November 2010 was seen as sending a message to China that the US would not hesitate in working with other Asian countries that share an apprehension of China in order to prevent a China-dominated Asia.

Indeed, China has, during recent times, adopted an increasingly assertive posture. During the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India in December 2010, he refused to address India’s core concerns: the disputed border, the issue of handing out stapled visas for people from the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir who want to visit China and the issue of huge Chinese investments and presence in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

A trilateral security architecture would allow the intensification of defence ties among the three countries.In the field of defence, India and the US have held over 60 joint exercises in the last decade. Earlier, Russia was the supplier of choice for the Indian defence market. That has, of course, changed in the last decade and many US defence firms have entered the lucrative Indian market. India has bought American military equipment including the C-130J, Harpoon missiles and maritime surveillance aircraft. It is noteworthy that American firms bagged Indian military contracts worth nearly $8.7 billion between March 2008 and October 2010. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has recently inducted its first Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules at Hindon air force station, near New Delhi.  It is the first of six C-130Js ordered under a US foreign military sale in late 2008. Two American aircraft – Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F/A-18 E/F – are in the fray along with the European Eurofighter, Swedish Gripen, French Rafale and Russian MIG-35 for the IAF’s $11 billion medium-multirole aircraft (M-MRCA) deal for 126 fourth generation combat aircraft.  

India, Australia and the US can co-operate to protect the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean region. They also have a common interest in maintaining security and stability in countries like Indonesia. The importance of Indonesia in American security calculations in the Indian Ocean region was highlighted by the fact that US President Barack Obama visited Indonesia in his Asian democracies tour of November 2010. India and Indonesia have historical and cultural ties, dating back to centuries. It is noteworthy that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the Chief Guest at India’s sixty-second Republic Day celebrations in late-January 2011. As next-door-neighbours, Australia also has a deep interest in the stability of Indonesia.   

The Indian Navy occupies a strong position in the region between the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, home to some of the world’s most important, and vulnerable, sea lines of communication. Every day, 15.5 million barrels of oil, roughly 40 per cent of the entire global oil trade, passes through the Strait of Hormuz, while an estimated 11 million barrels pass through the Malacca and Singapore Straits every day. Besides military threats like sea mines, maritime terrorism, and internal conflicts, India, Australia and the US share an interest in combating non-military threats like piracy, accidents and oil spills.

India’s steadily increasing naval strength would enhance trilateral efforts to address such as those above. It is acquiring the augmented and retrofitted 45,000-tonne displacement Kiev-class aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov – renamed INS Vikramaditya – while at the same time construction has already begun on India’s indigenous 37,500-tonne displacement aircraft carrier. Both these aircraft carriers are expected to join service before 2015. The indigenously built carrier is expected to operate nearly 30 aircraft including the Russian MiG-29Ks fighters, Kamov-31 helicopters and the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The Navy is also considering a plan to go in for a second indigenous aircraft carrier which will have a displacement of 50,000-tonnes and will be equipped with CRATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) capability.

The trilateral security architecture may also facilitate increased co-operation between the three countries with respect to energy security, especially in the field of nuclear energy. As India’s economy booms, one thing that India is perennially short of is energy.  With ever-increasing demand for fossil fuels, India’s only recourse seems to be to look for alternate sources of energy, including nuclear. Although, at present, India generates only 4.7 gigawatts of nuclear power, which constitutes only about three per cent of its total electricity generation, it has an ambitious plan to increase that to 60 gigawatts by the year 2035. In the light of the waiver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) in September 2008, it has signed nuclear deals with countries like the United States, Russia and France.  

Australia has 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium deposits and has signed a nuclear deal allowing Beijing to import Australian uranium for power stations. It has, however, refused to supply uranium to India until New Delhi signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India has criticised the NPT for discriminating against states not possessing nuclear weapons on 1 January 1967 and because the treaty does not contain serious disarmament obligations for existing nuclear powers. [2]  The issue of uranium sales has been an irritant in Indo-Australian relations for far too long and it may now be time for Australia to rethink the issue.

Given India’s huge population and the increasing use of fossil fuels which has led to a disastrous impact on its environment, it is imperative that countries like the United States and Australia help India reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and instead help it focus more on clean sources of energy. In August 2009, the first long-term liquefied natural gas (LNG) supply deal was reached between Australia and India with India’s Petronet LNG signing a 20-year deal for gas from the massive Gorgon project. The deal was signed between Gorgon joint venture partner Exxon Mobil Corp and Petronet, India’s largest LNG importer, under which Exxon Mobil will supply about 1.5 million tonnes per annum of its share of LNG.


India has recently been elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with the support of 187 out of 191 member countries. It has also mounted an intense campaign for permanent membership of the UNSC, a bid which Australia has supported. In a major development, during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in November 2009, he announced Washington’s support for India’s campaign – giving yet another push to the improving ties between the three countries.

While occasionally there will be areas of divergence, a trilateral security architecture involving India, Australia and the US would definitely yield benefits to all three nations and to the Indian Ocean region as a whole. It would allow the three countries to synergise their efforts given their common interest in ensuring a stable, peaceful and multi-polar Indian Ocean region. If successful, it may well come to serve as a template for regional  co-operation and be expanded to include other likeminded partners.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah

FDI Associate


About the author: Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka, India. Dr Borah was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, in 2009 and holds a doctorate from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. As an Australian Studies Fellow, he has visited and conducted research at the University of Western Australia, Curtin University, the University of Queensland, Australian National University, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, La Trobe University and Monash University. He has presented talks in Australia and New Zealand and his writings have been published in newspapers, books, journals, magazines and websites, both within India and abroad.




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[1] Dadush, U., & Stancil, B., November 2009, ‘The G20 in 2050’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[2] Fidler, D.P., & Ganguly, S., ‘India Wants to Join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a Weapon State,’ Yale Global Online, 27 January 2010.



Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
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