Australia needs India

During his visit to New Delhi, President Obama gave the finishing touches to a ‘shared vision’ with India with regard to the Central Asia and Asia-Pacific regions.

In spite of their common security concerns in Asia-Pacific, the US and India are unlikely to sign a mutual defense treaty. Nevertheless, this development is of utmost importance to Australia and Japan, the two most significant US allies in the region. The present Korean crisis demonstrates the US’s vulnerability in Asia-Pacific. China has already transformed the Taiwan Straits into an ‘area of denial.’

It is worth recalling that Candidate Obama envisioned a G2 comprising two superpowers with complementary attributes: an economically strong China and a militarily strong US.

Armed with this vision, Candidate Obama accused Bush of giving India a “blank cheque” when the US Senate was debating the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement (CNCA).  Though he voted for the bill, he supported every amendment that was opposed by India and the Bush administration.

After his failed pilgrimage to Beijing last year, President Obama realised that the Bush administration was right: China, given its opposing worldview, was a strategic competitor.

So before going to India, Obama had to undergo an intellectual transformation of his own.

President Obama now recognises that the US and India share similar economic and security concerns in Asia-Pacific. The Obama-Singh joint communiqué states that the US “welcomes, in particular, India’s leadership in expanding prosperity and security across the region. The two leaders agreed to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia.”

Reaching the same conclusion, Japanese defense and foreign ministers visited India early this month to explore areas of defense co-operation. Uneasy about a bullying China, most ASEAN members have been strengthening their military and economic ties with India.

Australia is rightly trying to entice the US to remain in Asia-Pacific by offering greater access for US ships and planes, and increased use of US military bases in Australia.

But the debt-ridden US, with its contribution to global gross national product shrinking, will find the present level of defense spending unsustainable. Australia and Japan lack the ability to fill the vacuum.

But India has the motivation, will, resources and technological capability to complement the US’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The deeper the strategic co-operation between New Delhi and Washington, and between India and the US’s Asia-Pacific allies, the more the US is likely to remain committed to Asia-Pacific. Surprisingly, Australia remains the weakest link in this strategy.

Under Prime Minister Rudd, Indo-Australian ties reached their nadir and remain stuck there.

The rot set in when Rudd, under pressure from his party’s left wing, China and the Australia-based pro-China lobby, reversed his predecessor’s decision to sell uranium to India (announced after CNCA’s signing).

Relations with India deteriorated further when Rudd failed to warn state premiers that their cosmetic responses to internationally-publicized attacks on Indian students were gravely harming Indo-Australian ties.

Then, under Chinese pressure, Rudd’s abandoned his support for quadrilateral dialogue (a Japanese initiative involving India) and refused to meet with the Dalai Lama, which further contributed to the deteriorating Indo-Australian relationship.

Like India, Australia has firsthand experience with China’s bullying behavior. So why has Australia not attempted to repair its relations with India, not to speak of further deepening ties.