In a recent op-ed (India Won't Provide Solutions to our China Questions), Hugh White argues against relying on India as a decisive factor in balancing against China. This is an important question, as China is almost inevitably an important factor in Australia's growing strategic relationship with India.
Hugh relies on a few propositions to make his case. He argues that India will never allow itself to be used by the US and its allies as a stooge against China. He questions whether India's interests are aligned with Australia, given that New Delhi does not seek to maintain US strategic dominance in Asia. He also questions whether India and China really have much of a beef with each other in the long term, arguing that the Himalayas will ultimately keep them apart on land. Contrary to claims by Indo-Pacifists that India and China will increasingly come into naval competition as they project maritime power into each other's oceans, in fact each side will have too much to lose by interfering with the other's sea-borne trade. Geography and mutual deterrence, Hugh argues, will moderate any strategic rivalry between them.
As usual, Hugh's arguments seem convincing. But, on reflection, the propositions that he relies upon don't really stack up.
The 'India is no stooge' argument is one we hear from time to time, but it is ultimately a weak one. Anyone with experience of India should be in little doubt that Delhi will not allow itself to be used as a 'stooge' against China. India guards its independence and freedom of action jealously (arguably sometimes too jealously for its own good). Its famed prickliness towards the US may be slowly fading, but is unlikely to go away any time soon.
But the great majority of Indian policy-makers also have a clear understanding that China represents the greatest long-term security threat to India. This is driven by a raft of factors, including Beijing's territorial claims over much of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which was repeated during Mr Modi's recent visit to Beijing), its nuclear, military and political support for Pakistan, and its growing interests elsewhere in South Asia. These are regarded as core concerns in Delhi and none of them are likely to go away.
For its part, Beijing has long been dismissive of India's national power and strategic aspirations. But one thing that really makes Chinese analysts sit up and take notice – and indeed makes them quite incensed – is the possibility of a military partnership between India and the US. Delhi is very much aware of this, and it is why India is doing what it can to leverage its relationship with the US to the absolute hilt. President Obama's presence on the podium at India's Republic Day parade last January was indeed a postcard addressed to Beijing. The US relationship bolsters India's credibility in Beijing, or at the very least significantly complicates China's dealings with India and its neighbours in South Asia. Who exactly is the stooge here?
The argument that Indian and Australian interests are not aligned because Delhi is not seeking to preserve US military primacy in Asia is also ultimately a weak one. India makes no secret of its long term aspirations towards a multipolar region in which it would sit at the top table alongside the US, China and Japan. India also has long-term (if somewhat vague) aspirations to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean. Delhi has become comfortable with seeing the US spend a lot of money providing public goods in the Indian Ocean, and especially in the Persian Gulf. There is a view that the US military presence in the region should be allowed to gradually wither away in coming decades just as Delhi took a relaxed view of the withering away of Britain's military presence in the 1950s and 1960s.
Maybe India's strategic ambitions will come to pass, and maybe they won't. More likely, they will just take a very long time to happen. But these aspirations only increase, not reduce, India's importance to Australia as a strategic partner. Australia may prefer to see the continuation of US military primacy in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean for as long as possible, but we are also realistic that it won't last forever.
In the meantime, India is a useful friend for Australia for many reasons, including in helping to contribute towards a more balanced region. If India ultimately achieves its strategic aspirations it will almost certainly only happen over a period of decades. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Australia's interests: a strong, friendly and democratic India in a multipolar Asia is undoubtedly a lot better than many of the alternative scenarios we could face.