Australian expert warns of bipolar competition in the Indo-Pacific

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Venkat Raman

Venkat Raman

Auckland, December 26, 2021

Dr Michael Fullilove extols the growing relations between Australia and India


                                           Dr Michael Fullilove delivering the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture from Sydney
                                           on December 24, 2021 (Screen Grab)

The growing synergy between India and Australia and the constant upscaling of bilateral relations between the two countries are defining moments in the return of geopolitics, a leading expert on Asia and the Pacific has said.

Dr Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney Australia, said that major changes have occurred in international politics over the past three decades, with the decline of cooperation between great powers.

“The contests between nation-states and between ideologies have resumed. Unipolarity has given way to multipolarity. Geopolitics has returned. Every day, the liberal international order becomes less liberal, less international and less orderly,” he said, delivering the Second Annual Atal Bihari Vajpayee Lecture organised by India’s External Affairs Ministry on December 24, 2021, the eve of the 93rd Birth Anniversary of the former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of India.

Describing Mr Vajpayee (who was also a poet) as ‘A Leader with a hinterland,’ he paid tributes, stating that both as External Affairs Minister and Prime Minister, his statecraft was creative and imaginative. Therefore, he said, “I would like to take this concept of Strategic Imagination as my theme for this Lecture.”

Emerging dynamic Asia

According to Dr Fullilove, emerging Asia is the most dynamic part of the world, accounting for more than half of global growth despite representing only a third of the global economy.

The other big global change is that wealth and power are shifting eastwards, towards India and Australia. Impressive Asian economic growth in recent decades has transformed the region and lifted more than a billion people out of poverty.

Stating that China’s economic rise has been phenomenal, he said that decades of rapid economic growth have pulled nearly 700 million Chinese people above the poverty line.

China is the world’s second-largest economy and it is likely to be the largest by the end of the decade. It is already the world’s largest trading nation and the largest trading partner of most Asian countries, including Australia, he said.

“India’s economic rise is also an important part of this Asian success story. Thirty years ago, before India set out on the path of liberalisation and reform, its economy formed just a tiny fraction of the global economy. Today, India has the world’s seventh-largest economy. The average Indian citizen today is more than three times richer than in 1990. For a country such as Australia, with an economy that is so interconnected with Asia’s economies, the changes in China and India as well as in Southeast Asia, create tremendous opportunities,” he said.

Indian community will always be valued in Australia: Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the East Asia Summit held in Singapore on April 6, 2020 (Twitter)

Social Security outlook

Dr Fullilove warned that the Indo-Pacific region is heading towards a prolonged period of bipolar competition, orchestrated by a security outlook that is not positive.

This part of his Lecture outlined Australia and India becoming victims of China’s policies.

He said that since Xi Jinping became President in 2012, China has become much more aggressive in the waters to its east and west, and in its relations with other states.

Australia is an extreme case, he said and said that his country has taken steps to protect its sovereignty. This has included banning Huawei and other high-risk vendors from participating in its 5G rollout, introducing new foreign interference laws and calling for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

“China has had Australia in the diplomatic deep freeze for some time. It has imposed sanctions on many of our exports, including barley, wine, seafood, cotton, timber, beef and coal. Indians have also become increasingly familiar with China’s newfound assertiveness, for which Indian soldiers have paid with their lives,” he said.

Dr Fullilove lauded the Indian government for adopting a flexible foreign policy (which was a part of Mr Vajpayee’s vision for India) and the impressive steps taken to protect its sovereignty including an upgraded relationship with the US and membership of important new institutional arrangements such as the Quad.

You can read our recent stories on Quad here and here.

The Quad Summit: US President Joe Biden with PMs of Japan (Yoshihide Suga who stepped down on October 4, 2021) India (Narendra Modi) and Australia (Scott Morrison) at the White House on September 24, 2021

“In Australia’s case, we have bolstered our internal resilience, increased our defence spending and, most recently, entered into a new defence pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, AUKUS, which promises closer military and scientific ties between the three countries and the development of a nuclear-powered Australian submarine fleet. After the fall of Kabul in August, many observers of US foreign policy concluded that America had lost interest in its allies and that its allies had lost faith in America. The announcement of AUKUS in September served as a powerful rebuttal of both arguments.

Indian Newslink stories on AUKUS can be accessed here and here.

With AUKUS, Australia is doubling down on its alliance with the United States while also drawing the United Kingdom more deeply into the Indo-Pacific. This is an ambitious step for Australia, a signal that the country intends to shape its external environment and contribute to the regional balance of power. Nuclear-powered submarines provide immense capability in terms of lethality, speed, range and stealth. Presuming these boats are eventually built, they will give Australia significant deterrent power.

Foreign Policy and Cricket

Dr Fullilove drew an analogy between Foreign Policy and Cricket in that both are a long game.

“Cricket and foreign policy require many of the same qualities: intelligence, skill, patience, discipline, toughness – and imagination. The most successful cricket captains are creative – they set imaginative fields, surprise their opponents with unexpected bowling changes, and lead from the front with the bat. Imagination is key,” he said.

The AUKUS Deal: The US Navy’s Virginia Class and Royal Navy’s Astute Class are broadly comparable. They can both carry 38 torpedo-sized weapons. This is significantly more than Australia’s current Collins Class. These can include Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (Navy News)

 “The relationship between New Delhi and Canberra has the character of long innings at the crease. We started off slowly, but now that we have settled in, we’re taking our shots and the runs are flowing. One year ago, when I interviewed Dr Jaishankar for a Lowy Institute event, he told me: ‘If there is one relationship I take great satisfaction in, it is the India–Australia relationship.’ Today, our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership encompasses regular meetings of Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers as well as military exercises and military-to-military contacts, Dr Fullilove said.

“I was pleased to see Prime Minister Scott Morrison announce last month the establishment of a new Australian Consulate-General in Bengaluru (Bangalore), as well as a Centre of Excellence to deepen our collaboration on Science and Technology,” he said.

And for a good measure, the concluding remarks of Dr Jaishankar before the start of Dr Fullilove’s address is significant. He said, “For Indians, I should add that hearing and appreciating an Australian viewpoint is more necessary than ever before. The intellectual world cannot lag behind the policy one.”

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