Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Where India fits in an activist Australian foreign policy

Australia’s regional engagement in the years ahead can never be conceived within the US/China framework alone.

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull inspects the Guard of Honour at a ceremonial reception in New Delhi last month (Photo: Indian government)
Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull inspects the Guard of Honour at a ceremonial reception in New Delhi last month (Photo: Indian government)

There can be little doubt that Prime Minister Turnbull’s recent visit to New Delhi has started to close the gap between where that country sits in the Australian strategic imagination and the current pace of India’s economic and strategic development. Turnbull’s very enthusiasm throughout the visit, the dynamic in his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the concrete steps taken to buttress this mood with an economic strategy all point to renewed political will in the relationship.

Turnbull not only spoke of a ‘sea change’ in how the two countries see each other, he said that Australia and India were ‘natural partners – more than ever’ and that it was was a ‘land of immense opportunity’ for Australia.

The test now, as ever, is how to translate the lofty rhetoric into sustained momentum. Turnbull’s visit took place against a backdrop in which India continues to grapple with a range of development challenges and where entry into the Indian market remains a complicated and difficult task for Australian businesses.

On that score, the prime minister did have to concede that negotiations on a free trade agreement with New Delhi have stalled, a pause put down to lingering habits of protectionism in the Indian system and a measure of resistance in the Indian public service, an institution in the process of developing the kind of prowess commensurate with the country’s role as an emerging great power.  

But Turnbull also commissioned the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Peter Varghese, to lead the preparation of an Indian Economic Strategy. To report within the next 12 months, that plan will help the government, business and education sectors in Australia to think more clearly about the shape of the Indian economy and its development towards 2035.

Perhaps the greater, initial challenge, however, involves the need for ongoing psychological change as to where India sits in the Australian strategic imagination. It is one thing, as Turnbull did recently – and as many others have done before him – to the stress the importance of transcending the familiar tropes of cricket and the old Commonwealth connection that have traditionally peppered the speeches of Australian and Indian leaders. Cold War suspicions, too, have been well and truly hived off to the archival shelf.

This also involves Australian analysts and commentators looking at India as it is: not trying to squeeze or shove it into the China mould. For Australia, India presents unique and distinct opportunities that are different from those on offer in China.

India has substantial iron ore deposits – meaning policymakers are having a different conversation with New Delhi on resources and energy, one that also goes beyond coal and gas. Here Turnbull had something to offer his host: during the visit Australia joined the International Solar Alliance. Cynics will point to this move being more symbolic than substantial, but the alliance is a pet project of the Indian prime minister, who has aspirations to make his country a solar energy powerhouse.

If energy and resources are likely to provide the bedrock of this relationship, education will be its natural bedfellow. Indeed, if it was China’s thirst for Australian resources which drove that economic link, it may be India’s hunger for education that allows Australian universities to blaze a new trail. Here the task, in essence, is to leverage the skills and training demanded by India’s growing population – particularly its burgeoning middle class – into the future Australia-India economic relationship.

To that end, Turnbull was accompanied in India by Education Minister Simon Birmingham – with the largest ever delegation of Australian Vice-Chancellors in tow. India is Australia’s second biggest source market for international students. During the visit, Deakin University opened a nano-technology centre and an Australia-India sports partnership was signed, an agreement that will see Australian universities cooperate with fellow institutions in India in the fields of sports medicine, management and conditioning.

Differences in strategic outlook, though narrowing, are likely to persist. At best, India is likely to be a cautious strategic partner for Australia. Both countries are preoccupied with China, but with different emphases arising from history and geography. Where New Delhi’s preoccupation remains the China/Pakistan nexus, not to mention Beijing’s relations with Russia, Canberra still looks at China’s rise through a maritime lens. The idea for a revival of the quadrilateral therefore, took something of a back seat on this visit, and Indian fingers remain somewhat burnt by Kevin Rudd’s walkout on the group in early 2008. A revival of the Quad remains a possibility – but it might be better to proceed incrementally.

Nevertheless the minilateral agenda remains live: cooperation amongst Canberra, Tokyo and New Delhi, as well as Paris, remains a fruitful means of addressing a range of joint strategic concerns, not least in the Indian Ocean. The significance too of the MOU on Security Cooperation signed with the Indian ministry of Home Affairs during this visit – covering inter alia Counter-terrorism and cyber prevention –should also not be missed. In the past, the bulk of Canberra’s engagement has been with the ministries of defence and foreign affairs. So the government is well and truly broadening its reach into the Indian bureaucracy.

As Turnbull put it, the next step is for both nations to ‘engage our friends and partners to form broader habits of cooperation’ and ‘help shape the entire region’s common strategic outlook’. That’s ambitious, but it is in line with an activist Australian foreign policy. And such a goal can only help in reaffirming the point that Australia’s regional engagement in the years ahead can never be conceived within the US/China framework alone.

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