Natural allies a world apart
Prime Minister Julia Gillard is given a ceremonial welcome at the Presidential Palace, during her official visit to India last year. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
How many Australians are aware that Indian contingents fought alongside the Anzacs 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, appropriately enough at the Australian War Memorial, 1300 Indian soldiers lost their lives at Gallipoli. Indians fought alongside Australians also in ''in El Alamein, North Africa, in the Syria-Lebanon campaign, in Burma, in the battle for Singapore'' during the Second World War, he added.
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 with substantial and mutually beneficial relations with China, Australia has had sparse and troubled relations with India.
With India's history of opposition to the Nuclear Nonproliferation 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 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 believed countries like Australia and Canada to be grossly hypocritical in permitting British atomic tests on their territory, sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella, hosting US military installations that are tightly integrated in the global US nuclear infrastructure, and deeply implicated in global US 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 long-standing plank of its anti-nuclear policy. The Howard government had decided to sell uranium to India but lost office.
In 2008 the Rudd government joined Washington in the vote in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to rewrite the rule book for India's benefit that left the government with an illogical and untenable policy. It supported open access to global nuclear trade for India despite its pariah status under the NPT, but would not sell Australian uranium because India had not signed the NPT.
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 nonproliferation to any third party, became a favourite refrain.
In December 2011, the Labor Party voted formally to lift its long-standing ban on uranium sales to India, clearing the way for the government to negotiate a bilateral safeguards agreement as the precursor to exporting uranium to fuel India's nuclear power program.
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 considered to be a success.
In addition to the persistent NPT irritant in general and the ban on Australian uranium sales 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.
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 long-standing 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 ''C's'' 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 world-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. In the longer term, more important than any military balancing of China by Australia and India, in co-operation 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. This is now being reflected in an equally limp defence of free speech by state authorities against the rising tide of intolerance domestically. Australia should be beware of the temptation to enshrine any right not to be offended.
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 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 yesteryears (the Nonaligned Movement), to norm-advancing selective coalitions of the influential as the diplomacy of the future.
Professor Thakur is at Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.