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India: A test match summit

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7 November 2008 15:49

A true summit meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Australia should last five days. The leaders would spend all that time at a cricket test match, with their formal talks taking place only during lunch and the drinks intervals.

The test summit idea is offered with a smile by India’s High Commissioner to Australia, Mrs S.Singh. 'The best way to have a summit between our two leaders would be over a cricket test,' she said. 'We could get a lot more done.' The test match summit compliments the insight of Monash University’s Professor Tam Sridhar: 'India has the Taj Mahal, but Australia has the Melbourne Cricket Ground.'

We might have to wait a while before we see the test summit, but Mrs Singh is predicting that Kevin Rudd will visit India 'in the next few months'. By that time, the leaders of India and Australia will have got through the first pleasantries. They’ve already seen each other on the sidelines of the G8 meeting in Japan, will do so again at the G20 summit in Washington and then at the East Asia Summit.

India will be absent from the APEC summit. But one of the first things Rudd did on entering office was overturn the Howard Government’s wavering over whether India should be a member of the Asia Pacific grouping. The Howard hesitancy looked like an inability to let go of the blackball that stretched back to the imposition of the APEC membership moratorium in 1997. Rudd wiped all that aside with the simple statement that Australia wants India inside APEC.

APEC, uranium sales and the surging economic relationship have been on show at the India Update conference, being held jointly by the University of Canberra (UC) and the Asia Pacific College at the Australian National University (ANU).*

Mrs Singh told the conference that one of the themes for the India-Australia summit would be to forge a strategic relationship. The High Commissioner said India considers that it now has strategic relations with Britain, France, Germany, the EU, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. 'It’s about time we had a strategic relationship with Australia,' she said.

I suspect we can blame China for elevating the idea of the 'strategic relationship', a phrase that is on its way to joining other diplomatic cliches such as 'full and frank discussions'. Beijing started using the phrase in the second half of the 1990s to confer importance on bilateral meetings. The term is useful because it seems to be a nod in the direction of alliance. Yet the beauty of a 'strategic relationship' is that you can have one with your potential enemies as easily as with your potential allies. No wonder the diplomats have embraced a term that offers such glorious ambiguities.

India is less keen on allowing Australia to maintain the ambiguities involved in Canberra supporting India’s access to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) while keeping the ban on sales of Australian uranium to India.

Mrs Singh said the 8 September visit to New Delhi by the Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, came only two days after the NSG's acceptance of India. The High Commissioner said India’s media zoomed in on the uranium issue:

We all held our breath, wondering if the timing [of the visit] was going to be overcome by events. It wasn’t. That’s the beauty of it – the fact that bilateral relations have reached a level of maturity, founded on the fact that India and Australia are mature, stable democracies. We should understand that the relationship between the two countries extends over a whole number of areas. We believe the Foreign Minister and we believe Australia when it says it wants to take India to the front rank of its relationships.

* This unusual collaboration between these two universities had been undertaken in the 'spirit of glasnost', according to the vice-chancellor  of UC, Stephen Parker. Humour can reveal truth. The seven minute drive along Belconnen Way between UC and the ANU is sometimes an unbridgeable journey between Canberra’s two premier universities. What was that line about academic feuds always being so bitter because the stakes are so small?

Photo by Flickr user The Eternity, used under a Creative Commons license.

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