India-US Exploring New Avenues

Cover Story

Prime Minister Modi described India and Australia as ‘foremost partners’ in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean. One of the key drivers of this partnership is trade and investment. Currently, Australia and India bilateral trade stands at $15 billion compared to $150 billion between Australia and China

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Australia - the first such official visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years-marks an important chapter in the evolution of Australia-India relations. Coming on the heels of the G20 summit in Brisbane, at the heart of this bilateral visit were issues of business, trade and investment. However, there is also a growing recognition in both Canberra and New Delhi about the importance of bilateral security cooperation between the two countries in a rapidly changing geostrategic landscape.

During the course of this visit, Prime Minister Modi not only reached out to the diaspora, but also charmed Australian political leaders from both sides of the aisle as well as a number of high profile business personalities. Be it at the event to unveil Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Brisbane or his speech to the capacity crowd at Sydney’s Allphones Arena, Prime Minister Modi demonstrated that his connect with the diaspora is not only limited to a single event at Madison Square Garden, but he has a following that cuts across nations and regions. More impressive was the manner in which his speech to the House of Representatives at the Australian Parliament was received where after his address, leaders from both the parties gave him a standing ovation and to quote a newspaper report, “If Madam Speaker had let them, they would have whistled, whooped and charged the stage.” This is indeed a remarkable achievement if we consider that relations between the two countries have not really been warm over the past few decades.

Divergent Pasts

In spite of the many commonalities between the two democracies, India and Australia followed two different trajectories in the post-war era. Most of the times, both were content in their respective strategic spheres but when their paths crossed, they found themselves in opposite camps. During the Cold War, while Australia found itself firmly locked in an alliance with the United States and carried out expeditions in Korea and Vietnam in order to further its security interests, India detested such alliance behaviour, preferred to limit the role of Great Powers in its neighbourhood and was one of the main proponents of the Non-Aligned Movement. Australia’s perceived ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan in its South Asia Policy caused further estrangement between the two countries.

In the post-Cold War era, with the United States emerging as the sole superpower, Australia was comfortable to renew its security commitment through the ANZUS alliance. Following closely in the footsteps of the United States, it also became one of the most vocal supporters of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation agenda. This activist zeal on Australia’s part would prove to be the single most important reason that inhibited cooperation between the two countries even when the bipolar world was a thing of the past. Canberra’s decision to recall its military attaché to New Delhi and suspend all bilateral relations after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests was seen by the Indian establishment as well as the general public as an extreme reaction which was uncalled for.

Convergence of Interests: Trade and Investment

Given this background, for any diplomacy to achieve substantial deliverables from the bilateral visit, the political leadership needed to elevate the relationship to a higher level through their personal charisma. This is exactly what Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Narendra Modi brought to the table when they first met earlier this year in India in September. Prime Minister Modi reciprocated his gesture by conducting a bilateral visit within two months of the Australian premier’s visit, thus investing energy and political capital into the relationship that has been long missing. This was in sharp contrast to the 1950s and 1960s when Robert Menzies and Jawaharlal Nehru differed on almost every issue of national and international importance, as a result of which Australia and India remained culturally, psychologically and diplomatically poles apart. History cannot be erased, it can merely be re-written and it is in following exactly this maxim that Prime Minister Modi used the opportunity to focus on aspects of Australia-India historical relationship that goes far beyond the Nehru-Menzies animosity. By presenting Tony Abbott with a photo collage dedicated to John Lang, who is regarded as Australia’s first native born novelist, the Indian prime minister was sending a message to his Australian counterpart that the historical relationship between the two countries go far deeper and the last few decades were merely an occasion of missed opportunities.

Prime Minister Modi described India and Australia as ‘foremost partners’ in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean. One of the key drivers of this partnership is trade and investment. Currently, Australia and India bilateral trade stands at $15 billion compared to $150 billion between Australia and China. Both the leaders realised that this figure needs to be ‘cranked up’. In a joint statement released by the two prime ministers in Canberra, they directed that the negotiations for an equitable, balanced, mutually beneficial and high quality Australia India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is brought to an early conclusion in order to realise the potential of commercial relations between the two countries, thereby boosting trade figures. It also said that, ‘Indian investment in the resource sector in Australia promises to create jobs and value for the Australian economy just as Australian investment in cold chain storage, energy, infrastructure and other sectors can do for the Indian economy.’ The two countries also signed five memoranda of understanding on social security, art and culture, narcotics, tourism and transfer of sentenced persons.

Present Geo-Political Context

If the past has been a constraint in forging a meaningful partnership between the two countries, what are the drivers that have forced them to come together and explore avenues of cooperation, especially in the security domain? The global shift of power and wealth to Asia has led many to call the 21st century as the Asian century. The increasing global clout of countries like China and India, their defence capabilities and influence in multilateral institutions proves that this power transition is for real. As is the case with the international system, such moments of flux induces uncertainty about the future of the world order and states tend to take requisite steps either to insure, hedge or balance against those future uncertainties. The convergence of Indian and Australian interests resulting in increased bilateral security cooperation is an outcome of precisely that global reality.

There are a substantial number of overlapping concerns that have coalesced at this particular moment of uncertainty and driven home the point both in New Delhi as well as Canberra that China’s rise may not be a peaceful one. The belligerence displayed by China in 2010 with regard to its maritime jurisdiction over the South China Sea and the rate at which it is modernising its defence capabilities has caused real anxiety, in not only these two capitals, but also among China’s other neighbours like Vietnam and Cambodia. While the long-standing boundary dispute with India continues to fester, China is trying to expand its naval fleet in the Indian Ocean that will be in direct confrontation to India’s interest in the region.

India’s rise as a regional power and with a blue water navy at its disposal in the coming years, has led many to believe that India will play a significant role, not only in the Indian Ocean, but also in the Pacific. It is in line with this viewpoint that states like Australia expect India to be a new security partner in the Asian Pacific region. This paradigm shift in Australia’s strategic thinking towards the Indian Ocean dovetails with Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, which is evident by the new agreement for security cooperation with Australia. Speaking on the floor of the Australian parliament, Modi said that peace and stability in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region cannot be taken for granted. Both the countries need to play their part by expanding security co-operation and deepening international partnerships.

The new framework for security cooperation binds the two countries to annual summits, including meeting of the two prime ministers, regular meetings of the defence ministers, regular bilateral maritime exercises, close cooperation in counter-terrorism and international crimes, early operationalisation of the civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement and Australia’s support for strengthening India’s energy security by supply of uranium for India’s safeguarded nuclear reactors. It has 32 actionable points organised under seven heads: annual summit and foreign policy exchanges and coordination; defence policy planning and coordination; counter-terrorism and other transnational crimes; border protection, coast guard, and customs; disarmament, non-proliferation, civil nuclear energy and maritime security; disaster management and peacekeeping; cooperation in regional and multilateral fora. If this greater commitment to security co-operation is realised on the ground, the Australia-India relationship can have a transformative impact on the future of the Asian century.

The euphoria around Modi’s visit to Australia, one of the crucial features of international diplomacy, demonstrates that in international relations, leadership matters. Our notion of national interest and convergence of values are not always objective realities, but more often subjective interpretations of beliefs and worldviews, often defined by those at the political helm. Both Abbott and Modi are relatively new to their tenure as prime minister and both of them have the political capital to invest in the Australia India relationship with a sense of vigour and urgency that can transform the enormous potential it has into concrete deliverables. With the rapport they share and the personal warmth both have for each other, the Abbott-Modi era could herald a new future of peace, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Go to Content Page


Ashok B Sharma
Ashok B Sharma

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.