The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on January 13, 2020.
The scheduled visit to India by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison was understandably postponed amid the catastrophic wildfires in his home country. But when it does take place, the next India-Australia summit will be an important occasion to consolidate relations between the two countries. It is fashionable to characterise the India-Australia relationship as one of perpetually unfulfilled promises. But, for perhaps the first time since 1947, India and Australia have an opportunity to develop a bilateral relationship free from major irritants.
Historically, India-Australia relations suffered from at least four deep structural impediments. The first was the logic of the Cold War, during which Australia decided to be among Britain and the United States’ closest allies, while India initially opted for non-alignment. This led to a number of disagreements and misunderstandings. As India achieved Independence, for example, Australian leaders advocated to their British counterparts that the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands be retained by the empire.
More challenging was the Pakistan factor. Australian attempts at mediation between India and Pakistan in the 1940s and 1950s were rebuffed by New Delhi. Over time, Cold War imperatives meant that Canberra opted for closer relations with Pakistan — a member of the early Anglo-American alliances — rather than India. Repeated efforts by successive Australian high commissioners to India to alter the balance in New Delhi’s favour fell upon deaf ears in headquarters. Nevertheless, the two countries did work in these early years to establish diplomatic relations, cooperate in the Commonwealth, and engage in military officer exchanges.
The second complicating factor was India’s nuclear status outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This resulted in Australia taking a particularly strong stance against India’s 1998 nuclear tests, which came soon after French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. However, the 2008 waiver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the subsequent lifting by Australia of its uranium ban against NPT non-signatories, and a bilateral civil nuclear agreement in 2014-2015 largely addressed the matter.
Third, the relationship historically suffered from a lack of economic content. This has changed. India is today the fifth-largest export destination for Australia, and Australia is a top 20 trade partner for India. Yet, even as merchandise trade remains below potential, trade in services has grown significantly, whether in education, information and communication technologies, or tourism. A recent Australian government-commissioned India Economic Strategy identified several sectors as worthy of priority in pushing forward the bilateral economic relationship.
Fourth, the relationship was previously held back by an absence of people-to-people content. Although the backdrop to this was the “White Australia” policy, which discouraged immigration from Asia, differences played out in policy matters such as the contrasting approaches of the two countries to apartheid-era South Africa. In recent years, however, Indian immigrants have been among the largest contributors to Australia’s population growth. In addition to the massive influx of Indian students, Indian tourists are also visiting Australia in larger numbers.
The end of the Cold War, India’s nuclear mainstreaming, Australia’s demographic diversification, and a growth in economic ties have today altered the reality of the India-Australia relationship. These factors certainly still cast a shadow, but they have been sidelined by new drivers of cooperation. These include China’s assertiveness and economic profile, shared concerns about Southeast Asian cohesion, and anxieties about the United States’ strategic commitment to the Indo-Pacific.
On the strategic side, India-Australia relations have experienced a major upswing. This is evident in a growing number of military exercises involving all three services, as well as staff talks and military training initiatives. In 2019, the countries took part in large-scale anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Bay of Bengal.
The establishment of a bilateral 2+2 dialogue (involving senior foreign and defence ministry officials) and trilateral dialogues with Japan and Indonesia represent more heft and purpose in strategic coordination. The resuscitation in 2017 and elevation this year of the quadrilateral security dialogue (also involving the United States and Japan) has obviously captured the most attention. Although the two countries will continue to have different capabilities, priorities, and strategic circumstances — which are natural — attempts at improving maritime domain awareness, enhancing interoperability (such as through a mutual logistics support agreement), and identifying areas of defence technological cooperation represent probable next steps.
On the economic side, expectations must be kept modest even if the trajectory remains mostly positive. For Australia, a resource-rich and highly-developed economy, foreign affairs has often been equated with trade. Efforts at casting India as the “next China” are bound to disappoint, if for no other reason than the very different natures of the Chinese and Indian economies. Instead, areas of obvious convergence — as on energy and services — still have room for further growth.
It is important to recognise the considerable distance that India-Australia relations have had to come, and the efforts made by successive governments in both countries since 2000 to redress past difficulties. In this light, the next India-Australia summit promises to be an important milestone.