Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The brakes on Australia’s ambition with India

The biggest challenge is convincing the public to turn up the temperature on a lukewarm relationship.

If Narendra Modi is “the boss”, as Anthony Albanese put it, Australians are yet to be convinced (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
If Narendra Modi is “the boss”, as Anthony Albanese put it, Australians are yet to be convinced (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

India dropped six points this year when the Lowy Institute Poll asked, who is “Australia’s best friend in Asia?” With a 10% vote, that places India fifth on a list of six countries, narrowly behind China.

In 2023, this measure had seen India spike to second place at 16%.

So, why the shift? Don’t blame recent revelations that India had planted a “nest of spies” in Australia. Field work for the 2024 Lowy Institute Poll was conducted in March, a few weeks before news broke in April in the Washington Post saying that ASIO had kicked out a group of Indian intelligence agents from Australia three years earlier after they had tried to cultivate local politicians, snooped around airport security protocols, and attempted to procure classified trade information. India’s involvement was subsequently confirmed by local reporters.

Still, when the time comes to conduct the next Lowy Institute Poll, it would be disappointing if Australians felt enough angst about that episode to meaningfully shift attitudes toward India. Countries spy. India got caught. Australia was itself once exposed for espionage in Timor-Leste and Indonesia. Hunting for secret advantage is one of those uncomfortable facts of international relations that government usually prefer to leave unmentioned.

Spying, however, is quite different from harassing local communities with undercover agents.

Perhaps a reason Australians have this year lost a little “trust in India to behave responsibly in the world” was an echo of news emerging over the past year from Canada and the United States. There, Indian intelligence officers are accused of directing assassination plots targeting local Sikh activists. Should any cases emerge of India stalking dissidents in Australia, the mood would be expected to sour.

Australians might feel they are getting to know India better.

Australians are far from down on India. Asked which country offers the best chance for closer security relations, India ranks second only to Japan (albeit with some distance between the two). India might have received more public exposure and lifted its rating on this score had the planned Quad leaders’ summit last year in Sydney gone ahead.

And looking back over the two decades of Lowy Institute Poll results, India’s position on the “trust” scale has become more stable. Even though a feeling of moderate distrust is rising, the difference between those who “somewhat” trust India and those who have “not very much” trust in India has grown closer and less erratic. Australians might feel they are getting to know India better. That would make sense for at least one important reason: in the past two years, India has topped the list as the country providing the most permanent migrants to Australia. (Even as the rate of migration itself is viewed warily.)

Talk of India as a potential economic counterweight to China has also clearly seeped into the public consciousness. A plurality of Australians believes that the highest priority for relations with India should be trade and investment (42%). On the strategic side, where India is also talked about as a rising giant, Australian enthusiasm is more restrained, with only 20% seeing defence and regional security ties as the priority.

But Australians harbour doubts about leadership. If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “the boss”, as Australia’s Anthony Albanese declared last year before a rowdy Sydney throng of 20,000 people, Australians are yet to be convinced. Confidence in Modi “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” this year fell to 37%, the equal lowest number recorded for him across the editions of the poll, and down from a high of 44% the year before.

Maybe this is a product of lingering ignorance. A high number of Australians still report they either don’t know who Modi is (16%) or know enough about him to judge (12%). That could change for India’s leaders as power shifts from the established international players. India increasingly matters. It also tells of the need to increase Australian media coverage of India.

But sceptical attitudes could equally be a consequence of exposure. “He, sort of, he seems a bit of a tyrant?” one breakfast TV host asked Albanese last year while Modi was visiting Australia. This followed persistent reports in India of communal discrimination, political repression, and a crackdown on press freedoms. Indeed, in the Lowy Institute Poll, 32% of Australia believe human rights issues should be the top priority in the relationship. Foreign Minister Penny Wong appeared to reflect such concerns in comments last month, when she noted that tolerance for freedoms in India had dwindled.

Another factor behind Australians’ mediocre level of trust in India might be the different views about Ukraine. Australians want sanctions on Russia and to see military aid provided to Ukraine. India, meantime, is regularly criticised for buying Russian oil and weapons.

Where does this leave Australia’s ambitions with India? Somewhere similar to those with Indonesia, also characterised by official enthusiasm which isn’t quite matched by public sentiment. That could signal a brittleness to ties. Indeed, if you put Australians’ “feelings thermometer” ratings for India and Indonesia side-by-side over the years, they track quite closely, mostly in the 50s, never really warming to the promise of closer relations.

So, with India, if the government doesn’t want to risk seemingly manageable issues – maybe a drug smuggling case or a trade dispute – becoming caught in a maelstrom of outrage and misunderstanding, the challenge is to persuade Australians as much as Indians the value of being friends.

Download the 2024 Lowy Institute Poll and explore two decades of Poll data on our interactive website.

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