Commentary | 17 October 2012

The Australia India story continues

Rory Medcalf, Program Director International Security, has published an opinion piece in the Urdu-language newspaper The Daily Milpa, New Delhi, on the significance of the visit to India by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

  • Rory Medcalf

Rory Medcalf, Program Director International Security, has published an opinion piece in the Urdu-language newspaper The Daily Milpa, New Delhi, on the significance of the visit to India by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Executive Summary

The Australia India story continues

Rory Medcalf

The Daily Milpa

17 October 2012


Last night Delhi’s Purana Qila echoed with a unique combination of sounds – the music of Anoushka Shankar’s sitar and of a didgeridoo, the traditional Australian Aboriginal instrument.

This was the cultural high point of a visit to India by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. And that visit confirms Australia’s future in Asia is about a lot more than its relations with China.

In fact, this week has every chance of being remembered as the moment when two multicultural democracies, Australia and India, became serious about a shared vision of partnership, economically, strategically and at the level of society.

This suits what is shaping up as a new Indo-Pacific era in which the economic and strategic fates of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region are becoming interlinked.

To be sure, Australia and India are two very different countries, and their relationship will continue to be a long and often frustrating game, more like test cricket than 20/20.

But it is now entering a new and positive phase, where the headlines can thankfully move beyond forlorn Indian students and forbidden Australian uranium.

This is partly due to the remaking of Australia’s international education policies and infrastructure in the past three years, after an industry which had grown too far too fast collided with the Indian media juggernaut in a public relations disaster about alleged racism and student safety.

But the lift in Australia-India relations also owes much to the Prime Minister’s courage and commonsense in confronting the Labor Party’s outdated stance banning civilian uranium sales to India.

Last December she led the pragmatists in her party to overturn a policy which had prevented Canberra from even talking to the Indians about selling Australian uranium for energy needs.

This removed an obstacle of political mistrust which was blocking wider cooperation in bilateral relations. Admittedly it ended a needless problem of Labor’s own making, given that John Howard’s government had already reached the same point five years ago.

Nor does it not mean uranium sales will begin soon: that will require a formal safeguards agreement, which has been slow in emerging. And if India proves unwilling to accept Australia’s standard safeguards conditions – as required of China, Russia and others – then no sales would or should proceed.

At best, Ms Gillard and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may be expected to announce the start of safeguards negotiations when they meet today [Wednesday].

But there is no need to expect breakthrough agreements or soaring rhetoric from this visit. Instead, Gillard and Singh can measure their success by how far they get in serious strategic conversation and by the complexity and businesslike, down-to-earth quality of much of their agenda.

Despite its recent economic and political stumbles, a rising India continues to hold vast potential for Australia’s prosperity.

India is vying with South Korea for third place among Australia’s export markets. Coal, gold, copper and education dominate these economic links across the Indian Ocean.

And while Australian coal is becoming a substantial part of India’s energy security, Indian investment is underwriting much of the future of Australia’s coal industry.

In food, water and environmental management, too, India is beginning to recognise that Australian experience and expertise has much to offer.

And at the level of society, Indians are becoming aware that their common interests with Australia are about much more than cricket. Both nations are multicultural, federal democracies. Indians are one of the fastest-growing and biggest communities in Australia. Indian students and skilled workers are contributing to the health of Australia’s society and economy.

On the security front, it should be noted that the Australian Prime Minister’s arrived in India after visiting Bali and Afghanistan. This is a sombre reminder of shared interests and shared tragedies. In Bali, 88 Australians died in a terrorist bombing in 2002.  In Mumbai in 2008, Australians were targeted alongside Indians. Both nations retain strong interests in cooperating against terrorism.

For its part, India would benefit from recognising Australia’s value as a security partner, not only against terrorism but in maintaining stability across the wider commons of a shared Indo-Pacific region. This includes the critical sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and into Southeast Asia.

Whatever its own problems, India will be an indispensable player in the evolving security order, not only in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood but also in a wider Asian system where many countries are concerned to ensure that Chinese power does not becoming destabilisingly dominant.

If Australia can now advance the steady work of building strategic trust with India, there is no reason why these two maritime nations cannot in time coordinate with third countries on issues of real mutual interest, from maritime surveillance to humanitarian assistance.

On different issues, these efforts might involve Indonesia, Japan, the United States, China or others.  All this will raise the predictable claim that Australia-India strategic ties are really just about some American ploy to encircle or ‘containing’ China.

But Australia and India would be equally ill-served by such a one-dimensional Cold War strategy, which is why their real diplomacy is more sophisticated. Each has deep economic ties with China, and is making efforts at wider dialogue and cooperation.

The musical festival last night at the Purana Qila was certainly not a symbol of two countries aligning against any third nation. Instead, it was a reflection that India and Australia are becoming true to their convergent interests and their shared geography.  After all, these two nations occupy land that was once joined in the great super-continent of Gondwanaland.  Now, at last, they are moving closer together again.


Rory Medcalf is a director of the Lowy Institute thinktank in Sydney, a Fellow at the Australia-India Institute, and the convener of the Australia-India Roundtable dialogue.