Common interests

Issue 11 - Feb 2008

A closer engagement needs greater political will

Rory Medcalf

Australia and India are logical strategic partners. Yet circumstances have obstructed their closer engagement. The next few years could see the breakthrough both countries need, but it will take sustained political will in both capitals. Otherwise, we risk seeing great expectations end with the diplomatic equivalent of a dropped catch.

Trade is booming and the political rhetoric is right. The new Australian Labor government, elected in November, claims it wants to make the India relationship a priority. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has spoken of India as the largest democracy, a ‘very significant power’ and a neighbour in the region.

Mr Smith and colleagues stress the potential of bilateral trade and investment ties. Already, India has rocketed up the ranks to become Australia’s fourth-largest export destination. Trade between the two countries is rising at 30 per cent a year, though the balance favours Australia, given Indian demand for its coal, gold and education.

Meanwhile people-to-people ties are doing fine. Differences arise, whether over cricket controversies such as at the Second Test in Sydney or more political matters such as the previous Australian government’s detention of Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef. But with deepening interaction between the two societies, such episodes are causing less damage than they might: a trend in the press and blog coverage (alongside the usual outdated mutual stereotypes) has been a growing recognition in each country of plurality and fair-mindedness in the other. Indian immigration to Australia is helping in this regard. India is Australia’s fastest growing source of migrants. Its skilled workers and fee-paying students are welcome additions to Australia’s economic and social fabric. Not that this deal is one-sided: many Indians embrace the opportunities Australia offers, and as an education destination for Indians it has overtaken the United Kingdom.

Yet something is missing. Until recently, a complacency beset the Canberra-New Delhi relationship, not helped by a surfeit of speeches about how the shared gifts of democracy, rule of law, English language and cricket made us natural friends. The truth is that for much of the past 60 years, the prospects for India-Australia ties were overshadowed by big global issues—the Cold War and nuclear non-proliferation—which divided us.

The Cold War may be long gone, but our two countries are still working through the fallout of the nuclear divide.

Read more at the Lowy Institute’s website and blog.