China is the “largest security anxiety” for Australia and India and Beijing’s actions along the Line of Actual Control as well as in the South China Sea were reflective of its growing assertiveness, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said on Thursday.
Marles, the first senior leader to visit India after Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s centre-left Labour Party came to power last month, also said China has been attempting to shape the world in an unprecedented way.
He also said Australia sees India as “completely central” to its world view, and deeper defence and security cooperation between the two countries is absolutely crucial to protect the rules-based global order, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
“For Australia, China is our largest trading partner and so is for India… For Australia, China is our largest security anxiety. That is also the same for India. How to reconcile these two things is not obvious,” he said at a media interaction on the fourth and final day of his visit to India. “Our anxiety is that when you look at the Chinese behaviour, be it in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or the South China Sea, what you are seeing is an assertive behaviour which seeks to challenge the established rules-based order which has been so important to the prosperity of the region,” Marles said.
In that context, he said Australia sees its relationship with India as being “really important” in protecting the global rules-based order, adding that Chinese assertiveness is a matter of concern.
“We have seen it in respect of the Line of Actual Control. The incident that occurred a couple of years ago, where there was appalling behaviour towards Indian soldiers, we stand in solidarity with India in respect of that incident,” he said referring to the Galwan Valley clashes in 2020.
He said the Chinese actions along the LAC were reflective of one country seeking to deal with its disputes not based on a set of rules but through “power and through force and that’s a concern”.
Marles said Australia is also “anxious” about the growing defence ties between China and Russia, and emphasised the importance of democracies protecting the rules-based order.
“China is seeking to shape the world around us in a way that we have not seen before and that is really about the last decade. In seeking to shape the world we are experiencing… in the last couple of years more assertive Chinese behaviour,” he said.
Marles, who is also Australia’s defence minister, said both New Delhi and Canberra are strongly committed to expanding the defence and security ties as his country sees India as “completely central” to its world view.
“It is really important that we live in a world where there is a rules-based order, where disputes between countries are resolved as per a set of rules and in a peaceful way,” Marles said.
Highlighting the depth of bilateral ties, the Australian deputy PM said India looms large in the popular Australian consciousness as the relationship blossomed significantly in the last few decades.
On the Ukraine crisis, Marles said, “What we are seeing there is having an impact on global food supply and that is a real concern.”
“There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine is having an impact on the global food supplies and we are working closely with the World Food Programme to see how we can help alleviate the situation as a food exporting nation… We will be talking to India as well,” he said.
Asked about the Quad, comprising India, Australia, the US and Japan, Marles said it is not a security alliance as there is no defence pillar to it.
On the South China Sea, Marles said freedom of navigation and overflight in the region is completely essential to Australia’s national interest.
“We want to work with countries like India and certainly India specifically to try and protect that global rules-based order and defence and military ties are part of that,” he said.
Referring to the “great strategic competition” to influence the Pacific islands, he welcomed comments made by China and the Solomon Islands that there is no intention to establish a Chinese base on the Solomon Island.
On AUKUS, which comprises Australia, the UK and the US, he said it is not a security alliance as technology sharing was its main objective.
The AUKUS partnership was announced in September last year that will allow Australia to get technology to build nuclear-powered submarines.
In their wide-ranging talks, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Marles on Wednesday resolved to further expand bilateral defence and military ties in sync with the India-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership.
The ties between India and Australia have been on an upswing in the last few years. In April, the two countries inked a pact to diversify bilateral trade.
In June 2020, India and Australia elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership and signed a landmark deal for reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support.
The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement allows the militaries of the two countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation.
The Australian Navy was part of the Malabar naval exercise hosted by India in November 2020 as well as last year.