Australia needs India

Vidya Sharma Contributor

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.

Unfortunately, at a time when a new security paradigm is being crafted, Australia has a new prime minister inexperienced in foreign affairs. PM Gillard also has very scanty knowledge of the region.

Moreover, Gillard and Rudd, her foreign minister and whom she displaced as the party leader, do not seem to be working as a team: Despite the above developments, Rudd failed to organise a meeting between Gillard and her Indian counterpart on the sidelines of ASEAN and G20 meetings so that the relations could be kick-started.

Australia’s foreign elites mistakenly equate the state of Indo-Australian ties with Australia’s annual percentage increase in exports to India (which are booming). They also seem to assume that India needs Australia more than Australia needs India because of Australia’s uranium, which is critical for India’s growth. In reality, besides Australia, there are six other uranium suppliers: all are keen to sell to India. Similarly, besides the US, Canada, Russia, Britain, France and Japan have signed or are about to sign CNCAs with India.

Further, Australian political elites believe that the Chinese economy complements Australia’s: China is now Australia’s biggest trading partner. On the contrary, Australia has historically maintained a ‘low level frostiness’ towards India since India’s independence. The reasons have varied over the years. It is so presently because Australia has deluded herself into thinking that she can compete with India in such industries as software, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare-based tourism, etc.

This endogenous tension has also prevented Australia from exploiting the full potential of trade opportunities that India offers.

Because of the above, the US had to nudge Australia to support the US-India CNCA in the International Atomic Energy Agency. It seems a similar level of effort will be required from the Obama administration with regards to Indo-Australian ties if the US and India’s shared Asia-Pacific vision is to be realized.

Vidya Sharma, based in Melbourne, advises on country risk management, inter-country joint ventures and market penetration strategies. He has contributed numerous opinion articles to various Australian and Indian newspapers. Email: sharmavidyasagar@gmail.com.