If you ask foreign policy wonks in New Delhi what they think of India’s ties to Australia, there usually follows a brief, slightly perplexed silence. Then comes the groping for words and a general comment along the lines of, “Well, barring improving trade – exports to India are around $12 billion and growing – and the large number of full-fee paying higher education Indian students in Australia – about 50,000 fly there every year - the feeling from Canberra under the new Rudd government has been more negative than anything else.” However, the analysts also say that it’s perhaps too early to jump to conclusions.
Mention Canberra’s decision not to join the nascent security/democracy grouping between the US, Japan and India, and they shrug their shoulders. It’s not a huge issue, the analysts say, as the aims of this grouping were vague to begin with. However, it would be of some concern if Australia pulled out to placate China.
Mention the decision not to sell uranium to India, and they respond, “Well, that was expected” – if unwelcome. They point to the “double standards” of Canberra agreeing to sell uranium to China even though Australia has no real guarantees that some of the uranium sold there won’t be diverted for military use. Taken individually, the apparent hurdles to the relationship could be surmountable, but they become more problematic if they begin to be viewed as a general trend of the new Labor government.
What’s generally worrying Indians and, it is reported, some in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, is the new Australian foreign policy course being charted by the more independent, Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister. It could prove detrimental for improved relations with India.
Professor Baladas Ghoshal of the Delhi-based strategic think-tank, The Centre for Policy Research, says there has been a “recent shift” in Australia’s attitude towards China after the Australian elections, and India’s importance “has receded just a little”. “John Howard was more conscious of India’s position in the region [than the new Rudd Labor government]. Howard wanted to take note of India’s emergence.” In 2006, for example, Australia signed a defence MOU with India.
Ghoshal goes on to say that, “Howard was closer to the United States and its foreign policy than the present government and was, by extension, closer to India, since the US had growing ties with India after the fiasco around the nuclear tests in 1998. But if there is a shift and a move closer to China by Australia, it may be less in line with US foreign policy which could have negative knock-on effects here as well.”
This view is echoed by naval defence expert and professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, GVC Naidu, who questions the extent to which Australia is willing to take the defence relationship forward because of the “ideological and political bias” of the new Prime Minister. “The previous Prime Minister looked at India as a small but lucrative slice of the defence market and a parliamentary committee was even set up to discuss the options . Things were moving forward, but today there is no dialogue on that front, not even at an informal level,” Professor Naidu says, shrugging.
Professor Naidu also says that there is a question as to what Australia will do when the subject of India comes up in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Ghoshal suggests that while there is a general consensus in New Delhi that containment of China is counterproductive, there is room for establishing common ground with middle ranking democracies in the region like Australia to bring some balance to the region.
This had been difficult to accomplish in the past because India has, until quite recently, lacked a strategic vision of its own when it came to the wider world. But all that is changing.