Although some issues persist in India-Australia relations, the two countries have much to gain economically and strategically from deepening bilateral ties

Few Australians are aware that Indian contingents fought alongside the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli that is so central to the founding myth of Australian (and New Zealand) identity. As cricket legend Rahul Dravid noted in the 2011 Bradman Oration at the Australian War Memorial, appropriately enough, 1,300 Indian soldiers lost their lives at Gallipoli. Indians fought alongside Australians also in “El Alamein, North Africa, in the Syria-Lebanon campaign, in Burma, in the battle for Singapore” during the Second World War.

Conspicuous absence

Based on common colonial links and political systems, Australia’s relations with India should be close and comfortable and those with China contentious. In fact, compared to substantial and mutually beneficial relations with China, Australia has had sparse and troubled relations with India. Its 1997 White Paper described bilateral relationships as “the basic building block” of foreign policy. After taking into account the totality of Australian interests, the Paper affirmed that the most significant bilateral relationships for Australia were those with the U.S., Japan, China and Indonesia. “Significant interests” were also engaged in relations with South Korea, other ASEAN countries, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. India was conspicuous for its absence just as it was finally taking off. That has now changed.

With India’s history of opposition to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the nuclear irritant to the bilateral relationship assumed a symbolic importance vastly out of proportion to the objective dimensions of the problem. Each side was firmly convinced of its own intellectual and moral rectitude and therefore smugly contemptuous of the other. Australia held India to have been deceitful in conducting a nuclear test in 1974 and a stubborn recalcitrant on the CTBT, in the passage of which Canberra played a key role in 1996. India has always considered countries like Australia and Canada to be grossly hypocritical in having permitted British atomic tests on their territory, sheltering under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, hosting U.S. military installations that are tightly integrated in the global U.S. nuclear infrastructure, and deeply implicated in global U.S. nuclear doctrines and deployments, yet moralising self-righteously to India about the virtues of nuclear weapons abstinence.

The stark reality that India today matters more than Australia provided the strategic rationale for Canberra to modify a key and longstanding plank of its anti-nuclear policy. The Howard government had decided in principle to sell uranium to India but lost office in 2007. In 2008, the Rudd government joined Washington in the vote in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to rewrite the rule book for India’s benefit. But this left the Labor government with an illogical and untenable policy. It supported open access to global nuclear trade for India despite its isolated status under the NPT, but would not sell Australian uranium because India had not signed the NPT.

Ban lifted

The oddity of selling uranium to China as an NPT-licit nuclear weapon power despite its suspect record on nuclear proliferation to Pakistan and North Korea, and banning it to India as an NPT-illicit nuclear armed state yet with a demonstrable record of nuclear non-proliferation to any third party, became a favourite refrain. In December 2011, the Labor Party voted formally to lift its longstanding ban on uranium sales to India despite the latter not being an NPT signatory, clearing the way for the government to negotiate a bilateral safeguards agreement as the precursor to exporting uranium to fuel India’s nuclear power programme.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to India in October 2012, during which she put an offer on the table to negotiate sale of uranium to India, was generally considered a success in both countries.

In addition to the persistent NPT irritant, in general, and the ban on Australian uranium sales to India, in particular, problems in the recent past have included on and off field controversies in cricket, attacks on Indian students especially in Melbourne which the state government and police were slow to acknowledge had a racial tinge to it, the welfare of Indian students in general including visa difficulties, and the occasional assaults on Australian tourists and missionaries in India. The noisy media in both countries can inflame popular passions and prejudices and complicate government-to-government relations. The federal nature of both political systems also produces surprising misunderstandings, including over student welfare concerns.

Shared challenges

India’s attraction to Australia has grown as a diplomatic actor of influence in shared major global problems and challenges, a policy and operational partner in managing the global commons of the high seas (for example, India’s longstanding and prominent role in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Straits), climate, disaster relief (as in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami), etc; a partner in fighting the scourge of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism; a strategic counterweight to China; a market for primary resources and services; and as a growing source of tourists, migrants and investments.

The two countries have a shared strategic interest in a stable Indo-Pacific Asia that links them also to Indonesia and South Africa around the Indian Ocean rim. Because the overwhelming majority of Australia’s population is concentrated along the east coast, it has been difficult to register on the public consciousness that Perth is closer to Chennai than Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane are to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.

Beyond the three ‘Cs’ of Commonwealth, cricket and curry, there is a deepening set of trade, security, cultural, educational, and services ties that together provide considerable ballast to the bilateral relationship. Australia’s abundance of natural resources and its word-class services sector, including in particular education, combined with its small population base, are perfect complements to India’s billion strong population, youthful demographic profile, growing middle class, vibrant private sector with an expanding global footprint in mining-to-marketing operations, and voracious appetite for energy and infrastructure development. While bilateral ties are not yet as deep as the ties that bind Australia to China, Japan and Indonesia, there are also fewer potential points of major friction to worry about in the future.

The China angle was explicitly adduced by The Australian in an editorial (April 30, 2012) endorsing India’s test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile in April 2012 whose 5,500-8,000km range puts most of China within range of India’s nuclear warheads. Washington supports a deepening of the India-Australia strategic relationship.

Contest of ideas

In the longer term, more important than any military balancing of China by Australia and India, in cooperation with other regional and global friends and allies, will be the contest of ideas. India has been singularly reluctant and is surprisingly ill-equipped to engage in this contest. It could learn much from Australia, starting with a more robust defence of liberal democratic values and human rights. Despite more than six decades of constitutional democratic governance, India does not demonstrate a high priority to hard or soft human rights promotion as a core element of foreign policy.

It is hard to think of a non-Muslim country that has a greater life-and-death stake in confronting and reversing the tide of radical Islam than India. That will be done eventually through the vigorous contest of ideas. In turn that requires learning the skills of norm entrepreneurship. India has all the objective assets for the role in abundance. Australia, as a leading example of successful middle power norm entrepreneurship and multilateral coalition building, could help India with a pivotal rebalancing of interests and values.

As long as India remains more concerned with consolidating national power aspirations than developing the norms and institutions of global governance, it will remain an incomplete power, limited by its own narrow ambitions, with material grasp being longer than their normative reach. India should make a deliberate effort to learn how to shift its default foreign policy mode from the universal multilateralism of the weak of yesteryear, to norm-advancing selective coalitions of the influential as the diplomacy of the future.

(The writer is Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University)

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