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Australia–India relations and the economy of ideas

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In Brief

At the Sydney Cricket Ground on 5 January 2012, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke confidently about the upswing in Australia–India relations — which had been strained since the violent attacks on Indian students in 2009 — citing cricket as the ‘common language’ of the relationship.

In the closing days of 2011, Gillard had also helped to remove an important irritant in the bilateral relationship as she championed and pushed through a change to Australian Labor Party policy, which had precluded the sale of uranium to India.


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Despite these developments, there is an urgent need to reimagine the Australia–India relationship, emphasising mutual exchange and collaboration as the means of engagement. The economy of ideas — of education, and of research and development — hold enormous potential here.

Australia’s tertiary sector is the ideal place to begin rebuilding relations. Students from India have been central to the Australian higher education system in recent years, and a corrective measure is needed to rebuild confidence following the 2009 student-safety crisis. Education policy within Australia will also be crucial in positioning the country to cope with a post-resource economy, one in which Asia’s emerging powers — China and India — are projected to play a major, if not dominant, role.

In preparing Australian graduates to function in a different world order, Asia literacy programs need to be present in curricula from the earliest stages of schooling. So far there has been a considerable amount of public investment injected into the study of China at a number of levels. In the tertiary sector, the federal government pledged A$53 million (US$55 million) to the Australian National University’s Centre on China in the World in 2010, while the University of Sydney is seeking A$10 million (US$10.38 million) for a centre of its own. By comparison, the Rudd government pledged A$8 million (US$8.3 million) in 2008 to the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute. But these federal funds — representing a fraction of those invested in the study of China — will expire in late 2012. And while Australian scholars maintain the need for greater study of Asian languages in general, India is often neglected because of the supposition that ‘English is enough’ to get by in India.

This is not to suggest that Australia should choose between the two Asian superpowers — India and China — but simply that it should diversify its Asia strategy. Educational trends are fuelled by contemporary economic imperatives, so China’s current importance to the Australian economy is to a great degree determining choices available to Australian students. But according to several projections, India will have become a global economic powerhouse by 2020, and contemporary directions in education therefore need to be better aligned with this projected future. Both federal and state governments need to diversify their investments in Australia’s Asian future, directing resources toward the study and teaching of India nationwide.

But while India consistently demonstrated impressive annual growth in the past decade, a 2002 inquiry into the state of Asian studies in Australia, Maximising Australia’s Asia Knowledge, noted that the study of India in Australian tertiary institutions was declining. Little has been done to reverse this trend, and the decline is still continuing. A 1998 Australian Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report subtitled ‘Commonwealth, common language, cricket and beyond’, also proffered an impressive list of recommendations aimed at extending bilateral relations. But the stalled implementation of many of these, combined with the overemphasis on others — in particular, tapping the market for Indian students but failing to regulate the environment in which this was done — has left an unpleasant legacy.

While there is ample evidence that the trade relationship has been remarkably resilient to the fluctuations in diplomatic ties in the past, a failure to conduct relations with greater sensitivity will jeopardise Australia and India’s long-term interests. The ability to cooperate over critical global issues in the coming decades — such as security and environmental crises like global warming in the Indian Ocean region — will be of great importance.

For too long, politicians have fallen for the much-repeated ‘mantra’ of shared experiences — like Commonwealth and cricket — in the face of disengagement. Citing cricket as the language of bilateral relations simply undermines the message that Australians need to come to terms with a dynamic and resurgent India. The opportunities represented by India’s growth need to be negotiated against its particularly paradoxical predicament: the world’s largest democracy, home to a massive middle class with growing spending power, alongside a disconcertingly large underclass, nestled in a relatively unstable region. All this demands knowledge of India’s glorious historical, political and social complexities. A failure to appreciate India has so far left an extraordinary potential based on so many commonalities — most notably that of democracy — lie wasted.

Kama Maclean is Senior Lecturer in South Asian and World History at the University of New South Wales, and the Editor of South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Ideas from India‘.

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