Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 12:31 | SYDNEY
Monday 27 Jun 2022 | 12:31 | SYDNEY

Australia relations with India


Rory Medcalf


21 December 2007 11:21

From: Rory Medcalf, International Security Program Director, Lowy Institute for International Policy

To: Hon. Stephen Smith, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Your Government needs to seize the moment with Asia’s other waking giant, India.  I was struck by your attention to India as a priority for the Rudd Government, in your first published speech as Foreign Minister on 3 December. This excellent rhetoric needs to be translated briskly into policy moves across the political/diplomatic, security, economic and social dimensions.

Many countries are courting India.  Yet there exists genuine potential for Australia and India to build a truly strategic relationship. A partnership with the world’s only democratic mega-state, and a vital power in Australia’s broader region, could in time come to match those we have with China and Japan.  Some would even argue that the stability of India’s political system, with the shock-absorber that democracy provides, might make its long-run success more assured than China’s.

Already India has emerged at lightning speed to become Australia’s fourth-largest export market, with growth of 30 percent a year. New Delhi is becoming a serious strategic player in the Asia-Pacific (or some might say Indo-Pacific) region: joining the East Asia Summit and committing its increasingly powerful navy to regional maritime security.People of Indian origin are changing Australia’s society and economy overwhelmingly for the better, as a major source of overseas students and desperately-needed skilled migrants.

And, as the Bali experience reminds us, a solution on climate change which excludes India is no solution at all — so if Australia aspires to consolidate a bridging role in an effective 2009 agreement in Copenhagen, it will need the best diplomatic access to and engagement with India it can have.The same applies to any multilateral issue where your Government wants to make a difference, including trade and nuclear non-proliferation.

The fact that dealing with India is hard work is no reason to shirk from the sustained effort Australia has too often failed to make.India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is an exceptional figure. His aspirations to improve the well-being and dignity of hundreds of millions of Indian people, while giving his country its proper place and influence in the international system, should resonate with Labor values, as should the inclusive and secular spirit of his Congress-led government.His government’s pursuit of its goals in a federal parliamentary system as vast and bewildering as India’s demands patience and determination –– including on the part of external friends such as Australia.

The Howard Government belatedly reached out to India, notably in its controversial policy shift to a willingness to supply uranium for energy. But this came after frustrating bilateral differences, not to mention patches of sheer indifference, in the 1990s. And the uranium gesture, despite its long-term merits including for reducing India’s greenhouse footprint, depended on the tortuous progress of a US-India nuclear deal; it was premature and warranted more domestic consultation.

What to do?

Your Government has the opportunity to ensure that Australia becomes permanently serious about India, and to manage any ill-feeling that might arise in New Delhi from ruling out uranium sales.  I would suggest the following steps:

  • Early reassurance, at the highest level, that Australia wants qualitatively improved ties with India.  Any misperception that Australia might focus on China at India’s expense needs to be scotched. Australia has not had an Indian Prime Ministerial visit in 20 years. It’s time, though it could be useful for Kevin Rudd to visit New Delhi first.  In any case, Australia needs patterns of ministerial contact with India to match those with China and Japan.
  • Collaboration in regional fora: Labor should follow through on its stated support for Indian admission to APEC. Australia also should work with India to make the East Asia Summit an important and useful regional forum.
  • Sustaining the momentum in the defence relationship: the RAN is building a good rapport with the Indian Navy. Australia should step up the tempo of its defence exercises with India, and these should be based on real operational scenarios and needs, exploiting the special qualities and experience of both countries’ armed forces.Australia needs a level of comfort with India on defence issues so that each side can ask frank questions of the other, including about India’s defence engagement in Southeast Asia.
  • Working with New Delhi on global WMD proliferation based on a recognition of India as part of the solution, not part of the problem: dialogue on this front has improved; this should be consolidated and reoriented towards co-operation and results. Putting differences on uranium sales to one side, it is time to encourage India into the global network of export control regimes aimed at stopping businesses from inadvertently (or otherwise) exporting materials, technology and know-how to WMD and missile programs. Australia is permanent chair of the Australia Group on chemical and biological weapons, and could take a lead in bringing India, with its huge chemical and biotech industries and sound national export control laws, into that forum. Australia should also sustain a dialogue with New Delhi and others on ways to bring India into the global nuclear order consistent with non-proliferation. Opportunities loom for Australia to play a multilateral bridging role on this issue in the lead-up to the 2010 Review Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Finally, if the US-India nuclear deal survives, Australia should let it be.
  • Making the trade and investment relationship all it can be: the Government should follow through on Mr Crean’s pre-election commitments to keep building the trade relationship, including to pursue an FTA with India. Bilateral trade could and should include a greater volume of Australian services, in assisting the transformation of the Indian economy. But it is in commodities exports and two-way investment that Australia has the potential to become an indispensible, and truly strategic, partner to India.
  • Proper resourcing of Australia’s diplomacy with India: this has several facets. India is not just another country.  The billion-plus scale of its population is echoed in its cultural and geographic diversity and the size and complexity of its mass media, political and business interests. In this context, and if your agenda is ambitious, the tradition of representing Australia’s interests in India with modest diplomatic, bureaucratic and financial resources cannot last.It is time to consider a full India branch in DFAT and a diplomatic presence beyond New Delhi. If Canberra sees fit to deploy diplomats (rather than narrowly-focused trade representatives) in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, why not Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata?  Finally, DFAT has not cultivated a single Hindi-speaker in a decade. Yes, India’s elite speaks English. But much of the political life of the country uses the vernacular, and to consider it not to be worth schooling a single Australian diplomat in that language is a false economy, not to mention an insult to a major world civilisation.(Hindi is also a backdoor to Urdu, and Australia’s diplomatic and security agencies desperately need talent in that language.)

It is a big agenda, and much more could be said.  But Australia cannot afford yet again to catch the India ball only to drop it.  Merry Christmas (not to mention all the other holy days recognised in multi-faith India) and good luck.