Shrinking the distance
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Shrinking the distance

In this opinion piece for The Indian Express, Rory Medcalf explores prospects for deepening Australia-India relations as discussed at the 2014 Australia-India Roundtable.

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Executive Summary

Shrinking the distance

Rory Medcalf

Indian Express

14 February 2014


India and Australia are forging new ties through education and investment.

It is rare in diplomacy to witness the transformation of relations between two countries. But that is what I have been privileged to see in Australia-India ties since I first went to Delhi as a diplomat 14 years ago. We are no longer estranged democracies, mutually indifferent and uncomprehending, separated by much more than the Indian Ocean. A set of candid and in-depth talks last week confirmed that Australia and India now have a firm foundation to advance together to face the challenges of an Indo-Pacific century.

The talks were the Australia-India Roundtable, which has grown from an informal dialogue among scholars to a programme of events involving senior officials, experts, the media, parliamentarians and business figures. It is now supported by the external affairs ministries of both governments as well as prominent thinktanks.

The messages were clear. Advancing relations between the two countries is a long game — Test cricket, not Twenty20 — and a league of champions is forming on both sides to ensure that we get through the tough times. Relations between democracies will always have rocky phases, as the US-India experience reminds us. Between Delhi and Canberra, the current story is good. Migration is building a bridge between our societies, with 4,50,000 Australians of Indian origin and Hinduism our fastest growing faith.

With India in an election year, Australians are paying unprecedented attention to the workings of Indian democracy and the movement for change in Indian society. Within Australia, governments and businesses are ready to engage with whichever leadership the world’s biggest exercise in democracy anoints — as a recent visit to Gujarat by New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell reminds us.

Likewise, Indians now take an interest in what happens in Australia’s corridors of power. Many took an interest in the fate of former Australian Labor party leader Julia Gillard, our first female prime minister, overthrown in a fleeting comeback by Kevin Rudd, before his defeat at the polls by conservative leader Tony Abbott last September. Gillard had proven herself a friend to India by overturning her party’s ban on uranium sales as well as driving efforts to address the student crisis in 2009 and 2010. Abbott is promising to maintain such a focus on India.

Misunderstandings over the treatment of Indian students and the sale of uranium are behind us. There is bipartisan support in Australia for uranium exports to India, in line with the same standards we ask of other customers. The safeguards agreement currently being negotiated should discriminate neither against India nor for it.

On the student issue, Lowy Institute polling shows that most Indians respect Australian institutions and values, even while many harbour concerns about whether Australia offers a welcoming environment. Student numbers in Australia are growing again. Along with improved societal relations comes the interchange of knowledge and money. In the short term, the economic relationship has hit a soft patch, not least because of the struggling Indian economy and the high Australian dollar.

But the future remains bright. Education, innovation and business investment look set to be the pillars of Australia-India ties in the years ahead. Top Australian universities, such as the University of New South Wales, are creating new knowledge in materials engineering, renewable energy, medicine, water resources management, space and defence technology. Much of this could be applicable to Indian conditions, though it is essential that both governments maintain the joint scientific research fund that has underwritten much of this research.

Roundtable delegates recognised the potential for Indian industry to commercialise and scale up ideas made in Australia. And Indian investment is already making its mark in other ways: delegates noted that environmental approvals had been granted for Adani and GVK’s plans for massive coal-export infrastructure in the Australian state of Queensland. This has implications for Indian energy security and new patterns of energy commerce through the sea lanes of Asia, from mines in Australia to India, China and beyond.

The two nations also share strategic problems: how to ensure China’s rise does not bring risks of instability or conflict, and how to salvage some security, hope and order from the next phase in Afghanistan’s painful history. Just as Australians and Indians fought and died alongside each other in the Great War that began a hundred years ago, Australia and India are well-placed to help each other deal with future security challenges. Bilateral naval exercises, due to begin in 2015, will train our militaries to work together. A recent Chinese naval foray into the Indian Ocean suggests that India should work with Australia and Indonesia to create a shared operating picture of what happens in our contiguous maritime zones.

More broadly, the dialogue made it clear that India and Australia have an interest in strengthening diplomatic forums where both are present — notably the East Asia Summit and the G20, due to bring leaders to Brisbane this November. That date is the perfect chance for the next Indian prime minister to visit Australia. No Indian leader has done so since Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. It was a disappointment and a lost opportunity that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh never managed it. An Indian prime ministerial visit to Australia would consolidate a new era of mutual benefit and respect.


The writer, programme director at the Lowy Institute and associate director of the Australia India Institute, is the founding convener and Australian co-chair of the Australia-India Roundtable

Areas of expertise: Indo-Pacific strategy; Australian security and foreign policy; Australia’s key security relationships including the Quad; strategic impacts of the rise of China and India; maritime security; nuclear issues