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Modi visits Bibi: Israel making waves in the Indo-Pacific

By Anthony Bergin

India and Israel are ancient civilisations sharing a British colonial past. They’re both vibrant democracies. Narendra Modi has just made the first visit to Israel by an Indian prime minister, marking 25 years since India and Israel -established diplomatic relations.

Israel appreciates the importance of India, the world’s second most populous nation, its ¬seventh-largest economy and an increasingly important player in the Indo-Pacific balance of power.

Interestingly Modi didn’t visit the Palestinian Authority as most world leaders do, flagging that he wanted to develop India’s ¬relations with Israel outside of the Israel-Palestine question.

The visit marks in an obvious way that the two states are finally bringing their relationship out from under the carpet. Both countries have long co-operated on counter-terrorism, exchanging information on terrorist financing, training and recruitment.

Even though India isn’t heavily involved in the Middle East, ¬Israeli strategic analyst Efraim Inbar argues that India and Israel share a common strategic agenda. He points out that both have “waged major wars against their neighbours and have experienced low-intensity conflict and terror”.

Both states share a common threat of Islam, with India worried the Pakistani nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of Islamist radicals. The Indian Ocean, where India is a pivotal actor, is an area of growing interest for Israel because of its apprehensions about Iran and Pakistan.

Given US-Israel friendship, working with Israel fits into Modi’s plan to strengthen New Delhi’s relations with the US. There’s been serious co-operation between the military industries and the intelligence services of the two states.

India, the world’s fastest growing economy, is also the world’s biggest importer of defence equipment. As India has moved away from buying Russian ¬military kit, Israel has become one of its major suppliers, averaging sales of more than $1.3 billion a year. In April India signed a contract worth about $2bn to procure anti-tank missiles and air defence systems from Israel Aerospace Industry, the largest order in Israel’s history. In May IAI concluded a $630 million deal to supply Barak-8 missiles for the Indian navy. These deals are part of Modi’s huge plans to modernise India’s armed forces by 2025. There’s also several Israeli-Indian defence joint ventures operating in India. Modi wants to build a world-class defence industry and believes Israel can help.

Beyond defence procurement, Modi and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed deals on co-operation in satellite technology, water and agriculture, as well as the creation of a $40m innovation fund.

Modi vowed to increase co-operation on counter-terrorism. “Israel and India live in complex geographies,” he said. “We are aware of strategic threats to -regional peace and stability. We have witnessed terror, so has ¬Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu and I agreed to do much more together to protect our strategic interests and also combat growing radicalisation, including in cyberspace.”

Developing closer relations with India underlines the fact that Israel is paying far more attention to the Indo-Pacific. From Israel’s perspective, Europe is in decline and displays growing criticism of Israel, while the US, under Donald Trump’s America First approach, seems to be in retreat. As result, Israel is expanding its economic links with the Indo-Pacific region.

Israel is negotiating free-trade agreements with South Korea and Vietnam, with the next candidates for agreements China and India. Trade between Israel and India is rather small, amounting to less than $2bn, (excluding diamonds). Israeli and Indian business leaders are pressing their leaders to reach a free-trade agreement to boost that figure substantially.

Closer ties with Asia are reflected by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to Israel last year, the first visit a Singaporean government head.

It’s part of a trend: Israel’s improving its ties with Japan and Vietnam, and has ongoing relations with Thailand, Taiwan and The Philippines. Israel has been expanding its defence exports to Southeast Asia. There’s even growing Israeli trade and tourism contacts in Indonesia.

In the small Pacific Island states, Israel has stepped up engagement through sending out experts as part of its aid program. Israel’s Agency for International Development Co-operation has funded or partnered on agriculture, water, disaster preparedness and clean-energy projects. Papua New Guinea sent soldiers and police officers to Israel for specialist training in preparation for next year’s APEC summit in Port Moresby. Air Niugini has recently started tours to Israel.

Because its grounded in common interests, the Israel-India ¬relationship will develop further. As a country with close and developing relations with both states, Australia can only stand to benefit from growing co-operation between Israel and India.

Anthony Bergin is senior analyst, Australian Strategic Policy Institute and ANU’s National Security College. He is co-author of The Wattle and the Olive: A new chapter in Australia and Israel working together

Originally published: The Australian. 8 July 2017