jump to navigation

Reshaping India-Australia Relations July 22, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Revo, Rohit , trackback

Rohit Revo

Rohit Revo is the Editor of  THE INDIAN publication (www.theindian.net.au) and also hosts a blog website at www.rohitrevo.com.au

There has been speculation that the relationship between this region’s largest democracies, India and Australia has lost its political traction and that the Labor government has had a different perception of the relationship, thanks to Kevin Rudd. The post-Howard era has seen a steady decline in interest of the top leadership towards each other. The banal and text book policy approach adopted by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has caused enormous damage to this bilateral relationship, caused Australia to forgo billions of dollars in lost uranium sales and eroded a huge amount of goodwill. His one-dimensional foreign policy fixation towards China has caused more harm than good.

At this moment there is also huge inertia in the Indian foreign ministry to establish a strategic partnership with Australia as it does not want to concentrate its limited foreign policy resources on a relationship which is refusing to peak. India is instead focussing more on US, Europe and Japan. The flurry of visits of Indian ministers into Australia has largely been symbolic and has not yielded any big announcements. The nature and size of partnerships announced during these visits is miniscule as compared to the deals signed by Indian ministers when they visit even smaller European countries.

The Australian approach to improving relations with India is confused, fragmented and ad-hoc. Ever since the attacks on Indian students in Australia, the bureaucrats have scrambled to look for piecemeal solutions. The approach has been to keep on engaging with small time activities ranging from organising barbeques for students to getting Indian journalists to visit Australia. The problem has been that many of the Indian students are vegetarian and not amenable to barbeque functions. In fact some of the Indians don’t even use the free barbeques in picnic areas as they don’t want to heat their meat on the same plate on which someone would have cooked beef and most of the Muslims insist on Halal meat and prefer to be vegetarians rather than eat something they are not sure about. Also the free tour organised by the Australian government for Indian journalists failed to generate any goodwill for Australia as senior journalists never visited Australia and stuck to their stand of needling the Australian government and instead gifted the trips to rookies to be treated as a job retention exercise.

The approach to addressing crime against Indian students was again ‘killing the goose that lays the eggs‘ and instead of addressing policing issues and resolving student concerns, the government took a different line and all of a sudden decided to take the school book approach and focussed on closing colleges and suddenly increasing regulation in the sector without analysing the impact this would have on the education sector. Indian students have thereafter left for better options and Australia is now losing out on the lucrative international student dollars to the UK, America, Canada and New Zealand.

The din and cry raised over immigration has again muddied the waters and has left people in Asian countries wondering why Australia is so angry over the presence of a few thousand illegal refugees when they are burdened by humanitarian refugees many thousand times more than this number. Some of the myopic Australian politicians have desperately been trying to increase the barriers to entry into Australia by adopting a shrill attitude and inflaming passions by raising xenophobic fears against immigration.

Canada has put no limits on immigration numbers and yet has a flawless functioning immigration system. Educated people in today’s world and people who qualify for Skilled Permanent Residency have multiple options available for immigration and competition to adopting Australia as a destination comes from other developed countries like Canada, UK and even USA. In 2008-09, Indians formed the largest group of new permanent or temporary residents, with more than 80,000 arriving to study, work or settle here. But in 2009-10, the number of Indians arriving shrank by a third to just 55,000.

Since the past two years, despite the best efforts of the Australian Foreign Affairs department, the hatred for Australia in India has not subsided. Anti-Australian sentiment has failed to recede in India. Come September 2011, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard will shake hands during CHOGM summit, the meeting would be just symbolic as both the leaders continue to lose command, respect and popularity in their respective nations due to domestic issues. Given the political situation in which Julia Gillard finds herself and the continuous decline in opinion polls, don’t expect any changes in the uranium policy of the Australian government towards India. With the burden of so many corruption cases and an administration beset by scandals, internal bickering and declining popularity, Manmohan Singh will not command the same respect which he did during his initial term. To boost his image back home and to appeal to voters in Northern India, it is quite likely that he will rake in the issue of safety for Indian students in Australia, which will continue to irk Australia.

The existing trade relationship between Australia and India is much skewed towards coal and gold and needs to expand. India also has key concerns over giving access to its farm markets as part of the proposed Free Trade Agreement, which Australia desperately needs access to.

However there is hope for better cooperation. With Western Australia firmly positioned as the driver for Australia’s growth and the exponential increase in exports of minerals through the ports in this state, Australia has woken up to the need of protecting the sea corridor around this state and its proximity to Indian coastal waters means Australian and Indian interests will need to merge to ward off any external threats.

The push for Uranium sales to India has grown ever since Kevin Rudd left office.  With Energy Minister Martin Fergusson in favour of selling Uranium to India, Julia Gillard needs to summon the political courage to turn around the sale of Uranium to India.





1. sandygordon - July 22, 2011


Thanks for your interesting piece. You make a number of valid points and I for one have long advocated that Australia sell uranium to India.

But it is not true to say that Canada has an open immigration system. In fact they take a similar number of immigrants per capita to Australia, and like Australia, base selection on skills and their economic needs, inter alia. In fact, Australia takes more refugees per capita than any other country.

Sandy Gordon

2. Auriol.Weigold - July 22, 2011

I too agree with much that you have written about the state of
the Australia-India relationship.

In relation to CHOGM to be held in Perth next October, I admit to
wondering whether or not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend.

3. Brian Stoddart - July 25, 2011

As you imply, Rohit, the heart of the problem is that neither side has a clear and committed view as to how the relationship needs to go strategically – the current activity is reflexive rather than position building. In the area of resources, for example, Australia is now getting in a bind over Indian buying of coal mines in the same way it is over China and the Gulf buying into agricultural assets. This goes to the political leadership rather than to the bureaucrats who these days scurry to help make a minister look good rather than build a longer term strategy. This goes to your Indian Ocean point – scholars have been on this now for 20-30 years, but a current development spawns the need for a rapid policy position that may or may not be productive in the long run. As usual we need longer term approaches and investments to build a genuine relationship. My favourite recent detail also concerns the Canadians – they sent something like 14 or more university presidents on a delegation, something Australia would do well to emulate. Similarly, NZ Prime Minister John Key quietly spent a full five days or so in India, something our PM would do well to consider. Thanks for a stimulating piece

4. Mark Jones - August 6, 2011

Australian Defence Minister’s recent speach……
“Everyone sees the rise of China but the rise of India is still underappreciated…”

I thought you all might find Stephen Smith’s recent speach at the Brookings Institute interesting. See htttp://www.minister.defence.gov.au/2011/07/27/minister-for-defence-the-asia-pacific-century-and-the-australia-united-states-alliance/

My theory is that now that our China obsessed Foreign Minister is out of the way that the talent can start to do something usefull.