A new vision for Australia-India relations

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

Australia and India have not always been the best of friends.

Seven Indian prime ministers from across the political spectrum and spanning three decades have come and gone without paying a state visit to Canberra, a record broken only now with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Australia following the Brisbane G20 Summit. Four unreciprocated visits were made by Australian prime ministers during the latter half of this period. Australia’s strategic discovery of a ‘shared values’ partner in India too has been a near-term development. The Coalition government under John Howard did not deem relations with New Delhi to be a significant interest, let alone a significant bilateral relationship, in its first Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper in 1997.

Australian and Indian friendship has been forged in war yet they have not always shared a uniform vision of the peace thereafter.

From the sinking of the German cruiser SMS Emden near the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in November 1914 to the battlefields of Gallipoli, El Alamein and Burma, Australians and Indians have fought, and died, side by side. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and again at San Francisco in 1951, the two countries went their separate ways. Prime Minister Billy Hughes stoutly defended racial privilege and sought territorial annexation in Paris. Nehru’s India, citing a range of objections from the dependent status of Japan to the forcible alienation of Taiwan from China’s fold, refused to show up in San Francisco. India’s engagement with — and importance to — the San Francisco system was marginal.

Australia and India are multicultural societies that value free association yet do not share a common belief in democracy’s role as a key organising principle in international relations.

The linkage between democratic political systems and a more peaceful world is readily apparent to Canberra, conditioned as it is in the Western tradition by Europe’s bleak post-Westphalian past where four of five great power transitions sowed conflict. New Delhi subscribes neither to the democratic peace and hegemonic power transition hypothesis, which views conflict as inevitable, nor to the premise that the likelihood of China’s peaceful rise will increase if the great maritime democracies of the Indo-Pacific are aligned in formation. Ad hoc ‘shared values’ defence arrangements in Asia hold little appeal to New Delhi. Regional tradition, historical circumstance, economic interdependence and the distribution of comprehensive national power, rather, will determine the fate of the Asian Century.

Australia and India share an abiding interest in the maintenance of a stable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific yet hold no symmetry in view of the means to forestall one-power domination.

Canberra exchanged its apron strings of empire for a more self-reliant posture and capabilities within the US-led hub-and-spokes system. Within this alliance, it has styled itself variously as a middle power or a not-insubstantial local power and sought to translate its military loyalty into influence with Washington to ensure the latter’s sustained and enlightened engagement in Asia. Extension or acceptance of alliance-based mutual security obligations is inconsonant with the principles of New Delhi’s statecraft. It has chosen to rise instead in the international system as an independent pole, seeking out autonomy-minded partners along the way in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. It is telling that in spite of the bonds of language and people-to-people ties, New Delhi’s favoured strategic partners in Europe are France and Germany — not the United Kingdom. Its essence of strategy in the Asian Century is to ensure that no one set of great power relations is advanced to the detriment of another. Far from aiming at forestalling one-power domination, this multi-aligned strategy has Beijing as a key pivot..

Australia and India are resident Indo-Pacific powers yet the exigencies of geography — and geo-strategy — are dictating separate approaches to the ‘Indo’ and to the ‘Pacific’ theatre of operations.

Relatively secure in its southern ocean, Australia’s defence strategy has concentrated on denying a significant external power with unfriendly intent from acquiring major strategic influence in its maritime periphery. As the supposed ‘downward thrust’ of Chinese power re-establishes itself in Southeast Asia, Canberra’s Pacific alliances, which geo-strategically ring the semi-enclosed seas of East Asia, are being tightened. Denied such margin of security by geography, independent India grafted a spheres-of-influence model on its subcontinental periphery — at times with Bismarckian purpose.

As its power projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean have grown in time, New Delhi’s leverage to exert pressure at sea for quiet on the Sino–Indian land border, as well as trade its (slight) naval footprint east of Malacca for tacit recognition of vital interests in its own oceanic backyard, has grown commensurately. Its underlying spheres of influence calculation though has remained intact. It is telling that even as Australia–Japan defence cooperation has raced ahead with logistics sharing, intelligence exchange, defence technology transfer, status of forces discussions and scenario-relevant military exercises, the ambition in the corresponding India–Japan relationship — let alone that with Australia — remains confined to cooperative non-traditional security functions.

Forty six years ago, Gough Whitlam, Australia’s remarkable Vietnam-era leader, had exhorted his countrymen and women to strive constantly to devise new ways of integrating Australia with its Asian neighbours, while simultaneously promoting among these neighbours policies based on regional consciousness and interdependence. His counsel remains as relevant today as then, and applies to both countries. Australia and India must constantly strive to identify and advocate, at home and to the region, the shared strategic interests that bind the Indo-Pacific together based on the twin pillars of regional consciousness and economic and security interdependence. Even as they do so, they should stay mindful of the gap in their own interests, traditions and worldviews.

Gough Whitlam’s prescient vision of a peaceful and prosperous region at the confluence of the two great oceans remains a tantalising prospect today. A conception of regional order that accommodates the secular and religious traditions of the great monotheistic and polytheistic faiths and seats its key military protagonists within the four walls of its primary security forum has no parallel in modern history. It is a vision of order worth striving for.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington.

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