Despite the absence of Indian military participation in the multinational Exercise Talisman Sabre, Australia and India continue to strengthen their defense relationship.
This week marked a significant milestone as several aircraft from India's navy and air force made a groundbreaking visit to Australia's Cocos (Keeling) Islands. This visit signifies the growing access both countries are granting each other to their military facilities in the Indian Ocean.
Since 2022, Australian and Indian naval aircraft have regularly utilized each other's facilities under a mutual logistics support arrangement signed in 2020. The cooperation includes visits by Indian P-8I maritime patrol aircraft to Darwin and visits by Australian P-8A aircraft to Goa and Tamil Nadu in southern India.
This access enables coordinated operations across the northern Indian Ocean, covering the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and Southeast Asia.
Notably, analysts have long advocated for Indian access to the Cocos Islands airfield, which is being strengthened to accommodate P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. This move further bolsters Australia's Cocos Islands and India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands as strategic locations to monitor maritime chokepoints in the region.
These chokepoints, such as the Lombok and Sunda Straits, are frequently used by Chinese vessels, including submarines, to enter the Indian Ocean.
The recent visit by Indian Navy Dornier maritime patrol aircraft and a C-130 Hercules from the Indian Air Force has elevated the Cocos Islands as a staging point for Australian and Indian air surveillance of maritime chokepoints throughout Southeast Asia and the eastern Indian Ocean.
For Australia, this visit is part of a broader effort to develop a network of maritime security partnerships in the eastern Indian Ocean. While strengthening bilateral defense ties with India for over a decade, Australia's focus is now expanding to include other regional partners, such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives.
This approach aims to build an Indian Ocean coalition that aligns with US interests while reducing dependence on US capacity or capability.
Given the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, no single country can effectively monitor it alone. Hence, Australia is actively building partnerships with key countries like India and France, as well as regional allies, to enhance maritime domain awareness.
This entails establishing relationships that enable partners to contribute their surveillance capabilities and facilities.
Sri Lanka has been a vital regional partner, with a focus on combating smuggling. However, defense ties between Australia and Sri Lanka are now expanding to encompass broader maritime security concerns.
Australia has made symbolic visits and donations of aircraft and patrol vessels to Sri Lanka, intending to establish a robust security partnership in the Bay of Bengal.
In 2019, an Australian P-8A visited Sri Lanka's Hambantota, where China has built a port close to critical sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean. A Chinese company has leased the port for 99 years.
Maldives is also emerging as a new regional security partner. A significant step was taken when a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A patrol aircraft quietly visited Gan in southern Maldives in October 2022.
The strategic location of Gan, positioned around 700 kilometers north of the joint US-UK base at Diego Garcia in the central Indian Ocean, makes it highly valuable, especially given uncertainties about the future of the Diego Garcia base.
Under the Indo-Pacific Endeavour initiative, RAAF aircraft will visit Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. These visits hold the potential for further expansion in 2024 to include Australian naval visits.
Regular visits by Australian ships and aircraft to India and other partners in the northeast Indian Ocean are crucial in familiarizing ADF personnel with these nations and their facilities.
Additionally, they aid in developing Australia's maritime and surveillance presence in the eastern Indian Ocean.
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