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Why the Indian Prime Minister won't visit Australia

Date

Ben Doherty

Our nation is not the most pressing concern to the subcontinent.

WHEN Julia Gillard touches down in Delhi in mid-October, hers will be the sixth official visit to India by an Australian prime minister since the government of Bob Hawke.

In that time, only one Indian PM has made the journey the other way, Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. Twenty-six years ago.

Ms Gillard's visit, not yet confirmed by the Australian government, has been quietly organised, in contrast to the thinking-out-aloud style of Indian planning. Earlier this year, India's government was happily leaking to anyone who'd listen that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would soon make a historic visit to Australia. In recent months, that trip has quietly been scrubbed from his itinerary.

In 2009, India agreed with Australia to ''elevate the relationship to the level of a strategic partnership''. So why, then, the inequity?

For several years, Australian opprobrium over nuclear testing set Indian minds against Australia, and institutional memories take time to forget. More recently there were the issues of violence against Indian students, and offence over the uranium ban.

Then there is Singh himself. The good doctor is 79 years old and the distance and the time zones are a trial for a man of his age. Domestically, his government is a shocking mess, and to keep it even staggering along requires near-constant attention.

Politics has, forever, been the art of the possible. If Manmohan Singh really wanted to come, if his government felt it important enough, a time, and a way, would have been found.

The primary reason for the lack of attention from our massive, developing, Indian Ocean neighbour is far simpler: to India, Australia doesn't matter that much.

Diplomats on both sides of the fence say that Australia is, at best, a third-tier partner in Indian eyes, a member of a more-distant circle of friends, as opposed to part of any inner sanctum.

While the Australian government is, rightly, keen to build a broader, closer and less-prone-to-derailment relationship with India - politicians of all stripes are forever parroting the hackneyed line about ''connections beyond cricket, Commonwealth and a common language'' - for India, Australia does not rate as a priority.

India's foreign policy priorities can be seen as a series of concentric circles.

In the inner circle, the world's largest democracy worries, foremost, about what's happening over the fence. It is right to do this, it's a tough neighbourhood.

India's relationship with Pakistan, while showing the occasional green shoots of progress, is still marked by mistrust and barely subterranean hostility, while China likes to remind its smaller confrere of its military and economic dominance. North-west, Afghanistan appears almost destined to plunge back into civil war post-2014.

The second circle of countries important to India is the great powers. China fits into this too, the US for matters of economy, security and its burgeoning nuclear industry, the UK for reasons historic, Europe for trade.

Further distant again is a larger group of nations with which India shares a looser bond, or with which it has a key relationship in one or two areas.

Australia fits here. Important for energy - and Indian dependence on Australian coal, iron ore and, one day, uranium, will only grow - Australia is also important as a destination for students and emigrants, particularly from Punjab, Gujarat and elsewhere in north India.

Indians still love Australia's cricketers too, but all of this is not enough to bump a distant country up a circle.

Still not worth a visit, in other words. This is not to say there is not contact and conversation. Ministers regularly shuttle back and forth, though again, more Australian than Indian. There are co-operative naval exercises and regular premier-led business delegations. And while counting and contrasting prime ministerial visits might seem obsessive, these matters do matter, they reflect accurately the state of play between nations.

An inequity with India is not cause for embarrassment for Australia. The world is an inherently unfair place and the realpolitik of international relations is that nations rarely meet on a level playing field.

Nor should this asymmetry cause Australia to abandon its efforts to further bring India into our orbit and our world.

But the imbalance needs to be understood and to be recognised: India is a country moving towards being a global superpower. For Australia, this is going to be one of those relationships where more is given than got back.

Ben Doherty is South Asia correspondent.

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