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Tightening an obvious tie

The headlines in relations between Australia and India have been grim. Controversies over uranium and the welfare of Indian students...

Written by Rory Medcalf |
November 11, 2009 2:00:17 am

The headlines in relations between Australia and India have been grim. Controversies over uranium and the welfare of Indian students,along with misperceptions about a purported Australian tilt to China,have upset what should have been a rapid upward trajectory in ties between these two Indian Ocean democracies.

Yet when Kevin Rudd arrives in India today,he and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh will find that they have an unusual opportunity to rescue the relationship from drift,and to put it on a truly strategic footing in which each country can help the other increase its resilience and influence in the international system.

For the furore over student welfare has at least focussed high-level attention in both countries on the challenges and benefits of dealing closely with the very different democracy on the other side of the water. And both countries’ rocky relations with China in recent times should remind them of this fundamental challenge they have in common.

The question will be whether the leaders have the vision and the political courage to seize this moment and take the necessary steps to a strategic partnership that goes beyond rhetoric.

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Why should Australia and India bother to make the effort? Canberra already knows that India matters. The Rudd government talks the talk. It is aware of the great benefits that close ties with India offer Australia in the long run. India is on course to be one of the three big global economies. This underpins its potential as a rising great power,with corresponding military strength and diplomatic influence.

But the benefits are not all one way. Many in New Delhi still have not realised that Australia is more than just another middle power lining up for a piece of India’s future. For a start,Australian resources,including energy,could play a key,and in time indispensible,role as India modernises and lifts hundreds of millions out of poverty.

More than that,Australia’s hybrid character offers India a singular combination of qualities as a strategic collaborator. It has massive natural resources yet a developed economy. It is Western yet increasingly Asian. It has a strong alliance with the United States yet well-established independent diplomatic,military and intelligence capacity. It combines proximity as an Indian Ocean neighbour with a deep enmeshment with other parts of the globe. It boasts political stability alongside major population growth and the absorption of an extraordinary mix of cultures.

Australia is a fundamentally secure nation yet worries about many of the same security uncertainties that plague India’s strategic community: terrorism,Pakistan,Afghanistan,nuclear proliferation,the impacts of climate change and,perhaps above all,the uncertainties about how China’s rise will affect Asian strategic stability.

Despite all their other connections,Australian and India are lonely powers in the global system: neither belongs to a natural bloc,and both sustain stable,democratic systems in an environment that is often less than sympathetic to their interests.

Which is why the misunderstandings and missed opportunities of recent times amount to such a needless disappointment.

True,growth in trade and investment has been impressive. India is now Australia’s fourth largest export market,and a proposed Free Trade Agreement would improve prospects for both countries. The first long-term deal to export Australian liquid natural gas to India was concluded recently: a 20-year contract worth Aus$25 billion. And high-level dialogue,including in the military,is improving.

Yet what is proving elusive is a relationship of genuine collaboration and candour in addressing these issues: a strategic partnership. Australian uranium sales to India may have been a magic bullet to take the relationship to a new level. Rudd cannot easily deliver on this,because he genuinely faces strong resistance within the more ideologically anti-nuclear wing of his party. But it should not be impossible for him to confront them,at least after the next election in 2010.

In the meantime,Canberra and New Delhi have to demonstrate strategic fidelity in other ways. That is why the leaders this week should announce the shared aim of a strategic partnership,preferably with a formal security declaration. This would be a landmark document along the lines of those agreed in recent years between Australia and Japan,Japan and India,and Australia and South Korea. Such declarations serve in part to build an informal web of confidence and cooperation in Asia,among regional powers that have previously mediated their security ties through the United States. The Australia-India connection is an obvious missing link.

This last point is crucial. Leaders could underscore the great potential Australia has in helping meet the spectrum of India’s vast energy needs. This could give Rudd scope to offer a hint of future flexibility about revisiting the uranium supply issue. Even though coal and gas will supply much more of India’s energy needs than will nuclear for the foreseeable future,India will not consider Australia a genuine friend until uranium supply can be countenanced.

This week Mr Rudd and Mr Singh have a real opportunity. But it has a downside. Several times before,Australian leaders have voiced grand aspirations about revolutionising relations with India. The point has arrived when more such big talk,without major commitments to follow,would confirm misgivings in New Delhi about whether Australia matters or can be relied upon.

The writer is a programme director at the Lowy Institute in Sydney,a former diplomat to India,and Australian coordinator of the second track Australia-India Roundtable

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