In August 1950, one of Australia’s most celebrated jurists, Sir Owen Dixon (who sought to mediate a settlement on Kashmir) wrote to his daughter, Anne, in Melbourne that Delhi was “a place I hope and trust that I shall never again see”. More than 70 years later, as distinguished thought leaders from India and Australia meet in New Delhi (September 6) for the fifth round of the most important bilateral Track 1.5 dialogue, it is widely recognised that Canberra’s relationship with New Delhi is among the most important and critical for the future of the Indo-Pacific. The leaders at the dialogue will reflect on the past, but recommend more concrete steps to foster the relationship and ways to create a more habitable and sustainable planet.
A gradual change
When we started this dialogue we recognised that for most of the 20th century, India and Australia rarely had a meaningful conversation. The long shadow of the Cold War, India’s autarkic economic policies, the White Australia policy, and Canberra’s decision not to transfer uranium to India and other factors had kept the two countries apart for several decades. We used to celebrate each other’s problems rather than our successes. But that era of mutual schadenfreude is well and truly over.
Today, few countries in the Indo-Pacific region have more in common in both values and interests than India and Australia. Apart from being two English-speaking, multicultural, federal democracies that believe in and respect the rule of law, both have a strategic interest in ensuring a balance in the Indo-Pacific and in ensuring that the region is not dominated by any one hegemonic power. In addition, Indians are today the largest source of skilled migrants in Australia and the economic relationship, already robust, could potentially be transformed if the promise of the new Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) is realised.
Setting markers for ties
A dialogue is a conversation between equals who have agreed to work as partners. No one just preaches, no one just listens. Thought leaders have come here, some from long distances, to have a robust conversation about our relationship and ways in which we can carry it forward. We are here also to lead and provide markers for the future of the relationship between our two great countries.
We are living through a period of immense turbulence, disruption and even subversion: the world is more uncertain than it ever was in our lifetimes. Even the Cold War, some may say, had a predictability, icy as it may have been.
The Australia-India Leadership Dialogue is critical because ideas matter in a relationship as much transactions and negotiations do. Stable, strong and sustainable relationships are built not just on the possibility of immediate gains, but on the promise of the future. In other words, the relationship is far too important to be left to the two governments alone. Governments matter tremendously, but forums such as these can provide the space and the ambience that can infuse new ideas to generate a new energy into the relationship.
Seeds that will germinate
The Leadership Dialogue is also important because ultimately, people and real connections matter. Technology and the cyberworld can blind us into believing that face-to-face conversations are outdated. We, in this Leadership Dialogue, still believe in the power of personal communication and collective communication in a shared physical space.
In her definitive account of India-Australia bilateral relations, historian Meg Gurry relates how Arthur Tange, High Commissioner to India and one of Australia’s most formidable diplomats, wrote in 1965 to his Foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck, that there was fertile ground between the two countries, but “no one seems to know what seeds to plant”. Nearly 60 years on, there are not only many seeds waiting to be planted, but much ripe fruit ready to harvest. And that is why we are here.
Some of those seeds will germinate during this important dialogue through discussion, from a broad range of business executives, government officials and scholars, eager to increase their understanding about how each country approaches shared challenges. From cyberthreats and artificial intelligence (AI) governance in a geopolitically turbulent region, to how they will decarbonise their economies and help each other develop trusted supply chains through critical minerals cooperation, to how India’s tech talent can help address Australia’s skills gaps through migration.
As the premier forum for informal diplomacy between Australia and India, backed by Australian-founded tech company Atlassian and its co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, outcomes that grow the relationship through emerging technology are high on the agenda.
Australia wants to find alternative markets to China and diversify supply chains for its critical minerals. As a country with reserves of about 21 out of the 49 minerals identified in India’s critical minerals strategy, Australia is well placed to serve India’s national interests required for India’s carbon reduction programme.
A shared framework
And while this is the first Dialogue since 2019, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic having kept both countries apart, as two nations we have only grown closer together through enhancing our shared framework for regional security, promoting business and commercial opportunities and strengthening our people to people links, bilaterally and multilaterally.
As India marks 75 years of Independence and surpasses the United Kingdom as the fifth largest global economy, the momentum around this fifth Australia-India Leaderships Dialogue and the bilateral fruit it may bear should not be underestimated.
Amitabh Mattoo is Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Honorary Professor, University of Melbourne, and founding CEO of the Australia India Institute. Lisa Singh is CEO, Australia India Institute, former Australian Senator and the first woman of Indian heritage to be elected to the Australian Parliament