Earlier this month, Australia’s Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade References recommended the country “explore and reinvigorate” the India-Australia-France trilateral dialogue on the Indo-Pacific. This comes at a time when Canberra seeks to play a more solid, independent and strategic role in the region by simultaneously strengthening its military capabilities and forging partnerships with key states. As regional powers look beyond the alliance system, in part frightened by recent American unpredictability, for a more flexible network architecture involving a range of minilateral arrangements and often overlapping consultative mechanisms, the dialogue India-Australia-France trilateral could be an interesting and useful addition. .
It also comes at a time when Paris is asserting itself as an Indo-Pacific resident state due to its presence in the Indian Ocean. This became blatantly clear last year when France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly made a strong case for her country’s Indo-Pacific role in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. (Colleague Ankit Panda and I both commented on his speech in these virtual pages.)
Regarding France’s vision for the region, India and Australia play a key role. In May 2018, during a visit to Canberra, French President Emmanuel Macron presented a new strategic axis involving the three countries. Commenting on China’s growing assertion in the region, Macron noted, “We are not naive: if we are to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner, we have to organize. Although many Australia are not convinced of this idea, there is a broad consensus in all three countries on the importance of strategic three-way consultations.
What is very interesting about the proposal for an India-Australia-France trilateral dialogue is the way it was shaped by a group of eminent think-tank experts, illustrating the influence of Track 2 diplomacy. and Track 1.5 in the region.
The head of the National Security College of the Australian National University, Rory Medcalf – who, along with India C. Raja Mohan and Frenchman Bruno Tertrais – originally pioneered the idea of a three-way dialogue explained the background to the diplomat. He noted: “We three [Medcalf, Mohan, and Tertrais] had been discussing the idea for several years, because it made sense based on our recognition of increasingly converging interests. We face many of the same challenges, but from different perspectives. As democracies, we can be frank by sharing different points of view, for mutual benefit. He added that “it is useful to be able to share our views with neither China nor the United States in the room.” According to Medcalf, Carnegie India, the Foundation for Strategic Research and the National Security College at the Australian National University had discussions that have continued to shape official policy.
As Medcalf noted, “I think it’s fair to say that the dialogue was useful in informing some high-level government interactions, most notably Macron’s visit to Australia in May 2018.” Academics and government officials from India, Australia and France gathered on the sidelines of the Raisina Dialogue – a foreign policy conference co-hosted by the Observer Research Foundation and India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. External Affairs – as of January 2018.
An editorial by Mohan, Medcalf and Tertrais gives an idea of what a future official trilateral dialogue between India, Australia and France might focus on. They write: “Between their island territories – Réunion and Mayotte in France, the Cocos and Christmas Islands in Australia and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India – they own a triangle of some of the most strategic maritime surveillance real estate in the world. Indian Ocean. As China advances in the Indian Ocean – its navy is now regularly present there – the three countries realize the need for a shared knowledge of the maritime domain (MDA). Carnegie India researcher Darshana Baruah described concrete ways in which India, Australia, India and France can collaborate around MDA in the Indian Ocean.
The official trilateral dialogue – as it happens – is also expected to focus on “softer” issues requiring less political capital to move the agenda forward. Medcalf notes that since Macron’s visit to Canberra, Australia and France have been collaborating on an environmental and transnational security “risk mapping” project focused on the Indian Ocean at a non-governmental level. At a later stage, India could also join the initiative, he hopes.
But serious bottlenecks remain before the trilateral dialogue materializes, including the issue of bureaucratic capacity and the preference for bilateral transactions on the three sides. A further complication in Australia-France relations that has surfaced over the past year concerns an agreement between a French company and the Royal Australian Navy around 12 new attack submarines. The delay – and possible collapse – of this agreement complicates the possibility of trilateral India-Australia-France cooperation, an Australian researcher noted privately.