Australia plays catch up in India

Author: Purnendra Jain, University of Adelaide

After years of low-level engagement or neglect by the Australian government, Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled a dramatic shift in Australia’s India policy.

While visiting New Delhi last week, she announced that India will now be ranked in the same category of strategic importance for Australia as the United States, Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia. This must be music to the ears of many in India, who have generally felt that Australia has treated India as low ranked, while engaging generously with China and many other Asian countries.

India has emerged as a confident nation on regional and global stages, especially since its faster-than-ever economic growth from the turn of the century has made history of its hitherto slow ‘Hindu’ growth rate. Nuclear-armed and economically bolstering, India has expanded its spheres of international influence beyond the earlier focus on its immediate neighbourhood in South Asia and traditional allies such as the former Soviet Union.

Through diplomatic activism including a civilian nuclear agreement, New Delhi has recently attained from the United States concessions previously unthinkable, while maintaining its stance of not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many other nations have also granted such concessions to India, including Canada, Russia and some European nations. Through its Look East policy, New Delhi has opened new channels of engagement bilaterally and multilaterally in the broader Asian region and it has been readily accepted and welcomed into such regional organisations as the East Asia Summit.

With Australia, however, India’s relationship suffered several political blows. Memories dominant in India concern Australia’s neglect of India when excluded from the APEC forum despite India’s plea for membership and Australia’s unusually harsh condemnation of India’s nuclear testing in 1998. But what really became diplomatically unpalatable was then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s reversal of his predecessor’s decision to sell uranium to India for civilian nuclear programs.

Further diplomatic discomfort stemmed from a series of violent attacks on Indian students in Australia. Portrayed as purely racist in the Indian media, the attacks reminded millions of television viewers of the continuation of the White Australia policy, which the government of Australia vehemently denied — at least initially.

In a year when the Australian government is about to release its first ever White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century, where India is likely to appear prominently among other traditional Asian partners of Australia, Gillard considered it essential to visit India and convince her Indian counterpart and other top leadership that Australia now genuinely believes in engaging India.

Before the trip her government had already sent some key signals, most prominently of Australia’s willingness to lift its ban on uranium sales to India. During her talks with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, it was announced that negotiations for a safeguards agreement will start paving the way for exports of uranium to India from Australia.

Many other initiatives she announced would have pleased her Indian hosts immensely, especially Gillard’s mention of two key ‘C’ words: China and cricket. Observing that ‘currently we have stronger defence ties with China than we do with India’, Gillard proposed more military cooperation with India including exchanges and training. She also incorporated the new geographical construct of Indo-Pacific, observing that because Australia and India share interests in this new region, the navies of the two countries now need to exercise more often than before.

Cricket is important, symbolic and has long dominated Australia–India relations at the popular level. Here the prime minister announced awarding of the Order of Australia to Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. Rarely granted to a foreigner, such an official honour drew more public attention, media coverage and presumably goodwill than any other official announcements. The prime minister’s visit to a slum cricket clinic for children run by the Magic Bus charity where she mingled with the slum children reinforced the message of popular goodwill.

The prime minister’s trip has smoothed some of the irritants in the bilateral relationship and has opened new doors for Australia–India engagements. Yet it remains to be seen whether the momentum at Australia’s initiative sustains a firmer, closer relationship. This will depend upon whether New Delhi is willing to reciprocate Australia’s new-found enthusiasm for India.

The most important expression from India would be a long-overdue official visit to Australia by the Indian prime minister; the last such visit was by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. By signifying important diplomatic reciprocity, it will not only help remove political asymmetries in the relationship, but will also be welcomed by the Indian community in Australia, which has grown exponentially in the last five years.

India was Australia’s largest source of migrants in 2011, exceeding traditional sources such as the United Kingdom, and Australia’s current migration policy foresees the Indian share increasing further. The lure of permanent migration heightens Australia’s appeal to Indian students, making India Australia’s second-largest source of overseas students after China, but with a sharp fall observed in 2012.

A prime ministerial visit with business leaders in tow will also be an opportunity for India to build new business networks and explore commercial opportunities first-hand in Australia. Now is the time for India to lift its Australia game, to extend beyond importing Australian coal, gold and minerals and being a source of human resources for Australia. Indian political and business leaders need to put on their thinking caps, take the wide-ranging opportunities offered by Australia, and fully develop mutual benefits in the increasingly vibrant Indo-Pacific region.

Purnendra Jain is Professor in Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide and President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.