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Australia-India relations: looking for respect? December 4, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Brewster, David, India , trackback

David Brewster

Auriol Weigold in ‘A media-driven view of the Australia-India relationship‘  has captured well the type of difficulties that Australia is likely to face in trying to develop a closer political relationship with India.

Weigold highlights the types of issues which many in New Delhi (and not just the Indian media) see as inhibiting the further development of the relationship. She nominates: Australia’s neutral stance on India’s border dispute with China; Australia’s failure to join the proposed Quadrilateral dialogue in 2007; and Australia’s refusal to supply uranium to India. There is some value in considering each of these issues in turn in order to understand what they really mean for both India and Australia.

First, is the question of Australia’s position on the long-running Sino-Indian border dispute. While India naturally wants as much international support as it can get in its dispute with China, it is difficult to see how Australia would have any interest in taking a position on an argument over the validity of colonial-era territorial claims. There would be significant costs to Australia from inserting itself into this dispute between these two Asian giants – for what gain?

Second is Australia’s position on the Quadrilateral dialogue. When Japanese Prime Minister Abe proposed the Quadrilateral dialogue in early 2007, Australia’s position was highly cautious, and rightly so. Japan’s failure to give any guidance as to the parameters of the proposed dialogue (together with the large scale Malabar naval exercises between India, the United States, Japan and Australia in August that year) left it open for China to plausibly claim that an informal military alliance was being built for the purpose of containing China. India too quickly backed away from the Quadrilateral in the face of considerable hostility from China and there were many in the US administration (that is, outside the Cheney circle) that were happy to see the back of it. Again, there would have been significant costs to Australia for supporting this ill-considered proposal, for little practical gain.

Third, is Australia’s refusal to supply uranium to India as a non-NPT state. There can be little doubt, as Indian commentators are happy to point out, that Australia’s position on this issue is a difficult one. In August 2007, Howard announced that he would reverse Australia’s long standing policy against allowing the supply of uranium to India, a decision which itself was reversed several months later by Rudd. More importantly, in September 2008 Australia agreed to support the Indian-US nuclear deal in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This means that Australia’s stance is that it not against other states supplying uranium to India, just Australia. However, as New Delhi knows, uranium is a totemic issue for the ALP Left, on which there is little room for rational argument. There would be a measurable political price for Rudd to pay in reversing Australia’s stance on the issue, at least until after the next election. One might ask, what is that practical impact for Australia and India? Uranium is a commodity and there is no shortage of countries lining up to supply it to India (Russia, KazakhstanGabonMongolia and Canada, to name a few). No doubt, India would like to further diversify its suppliers, but India simply does not need Australian uranium.

It is clear that each of these issues is symbolic and their resolution in India’s favour will provide few practical benefits to either India or Australia. Rather, is India asking Australia to pay a price for a better relationship? This sort of thinking might come as a surprise to Australians, who tend to look at things in much more pragmatic terms. However, the significance placed in New Delhi on these issues (and other largely symbolic/status issues, such the treatment of Indian students) indicates that India is arguably looking for two things from Australia. First, New Delhi wants Australia to show it due respect as a great power. Second, it wants Australia to demonstrate that it is on India’s side in its rivalry with China. Australia might well be prepared to doff its metaphorical cap towards India. However, anyone hoping that Australia will choose sides between India and China is bound to be disappointed.


1. Apurva Pancholi - December 6, 2009

Excellent article. Very well written. Probably the most interesting, and well though out and educated article I have read in a long time concerning India, China and Australia. Most other stuff out there seems provocative at best. Other articles seem to me to be negative, and almost looking to creating tensions between India and china instead of looking for solutions, and addressing key areas of concern, and looking for the real reasons for why they are even there. This article once again is excellent, hope to read more like this in the future.

2. Zakir Hussein Yunus - January 3, 2010

This article identifies the Australian perspective of the whys and whats that drive a rather palid relationship between a former colony of Britain and what’s widely perceived by not just Indians but many in Asia as that last vestige of British colonialism in the region, Australia.

In order to understand the relationship in a perspective other than that postulated by Australians it is important to note that even if all of the positions Australia has adopted and identified in the article here were reversed, and say Australia became involved in the Sino-Indian border dispute, the position would not change radically or change at all.

India needs bigger challenges than Australia presents. There is nothing really that Australia has that India covets or cannot find a suitable alternative to elsewhere. The Australian mindset from the cricket crowds, its media and its diplomats offer very little diversity for India to be convinced that Australia is sufficiently diverse culturally or politically to be enticed by.

Australia’s foreign policy is perceived to be driven by the biggest cheque books and is media or the ‘flavour of the day’ politics. It carefully yet deliberately omits mention of India in any positive light as a gesture of its annoyance with the Indians.

Australian media and its selective academic commentators (the mushrooming of specialists such as terrorism experts posst 9/11 even though there was never any known faculty for the subject of any repute till then, is a case in point of how the media in Australia work) also tend to re-write history or suffer convenient amnesia when it comes to India’s achievements. And they are not insignificant in the scope of mankind’s development.

Australia tends to celebrate in an “over the top” way those who it can benefit from most. It has nothing to do with political integrity. Most recently of course it is China. And the Chinese no fools in themselves lap it up to their benefit, the Australians dishing it out to their long-term detriment by breeding wanton ignorance in its population.

Indians for their part want bigger pastures to play in. They after all were international traders long before Australia was settled. America and the New World was after all discovered by accident when explorers were in search of a sea route to India.

The bigger pastures mentality may not be a good long-term plan and the Indians ought to be looking at lots of small pastures in the new world order. They may well have found that in the former Soviet states but not in Australia. Too far away, too self indulgent and too involved in their perceived greatness.

As for the United State’s relationship with India? it is a natural synergy and a natural partnership with so much more in common that the transformation in the past 12 years has been far greater and has resulted in stronger ties between the two giants than there has been in the recent history of both countries. It will endure because the US has no greater natural partner in ideology, technology, innovation and their common legal and political heritage.

Australia has to take the initiative and realise that India is not quite Indonesia or Thailand. India’s ambitions and its development are co-existent with its politics and its culture. Neither of which are negotiable.

Australia has to be less ambivalent in its support for democracies and its support for the destruction of terrorism. It cannot support Pakistan and China’s support for Pakistan whilst at the same time celebrating the Dalai Lama and his fight for independence from China.