Based on common colonial links and political systems, Australia’s relations with India should be close and comfortable and those with China contentious. For example, Indian contingents fought alongside the ANZACs at Gallipoli that is so central to the founding myth of Australian (and New Zealand) identity.
In fact, compared to the substantial and mutually beneficial relations with China, Australia has had sparse and troubled relations with India.
With India’s history of opposition to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the nuclear irritant to the bilateral relationship assumed a symbolic importance out of proportion to the objective dimensions of the problem. Each side was firmly convinced of its own intellectual and moral rectitude and therefore smugly contemptuous of the other. The stark reality that India today matters more than Australia has provided the strategic rationale for Canberra to modify a key and long-standing plank of its anti-nuclear policy.
The Howard government decided in principle to sell uranium to India but lost office in 2007. In 2008 the Rudd government joined Washington in the vote in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to rewrite the rule book for India’s benefit. But this left the Labor 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 weapons 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 favorite refrain.
In December 2011, the Labor Party voted formally to lift its long-standing ban on uranium sales to India despite the latter not being an NPT signatory, 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 generally considered to be a success in both countries.
In addition to the persistent NPT irritant and the ban on Australian uranium sales to India, problems in the recent past have included on-and-off field controversies in cricket, attacks on Indian students (especially in Melbourne) that 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 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); as a partner in fighting the scourge of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism; as a strategic counterweight to China; as 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, or than Sydney or Brisbane is to 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, particularly 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.
The China angle was explicitly adduced by The Australian in an April 30, 2012, editorial endorsing India’s test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile in April 2012, whose 5,500-to-8,000-kilometer range puts most of China within range of India’s nuclear warheads. Washington supports a deepening of the India-Australia strategic relationship.
In the longer term, more important than any military balancing of China by Australia and India, in cooperation 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 defense 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.
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. 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 their 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, to norm-advancing selective coalitions of the influential as the diplomacy of the future.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.