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Australia struggles to get a bead on its relationship with India

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi participates in a welcoming ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra 18 November 2014 (Photo: Reuters/David Gray).

In Brief

Getting foreign policy right at this point in world diplomatic history has never been more difficult. Wedged between its alliance relationship with the United States — vastly complicated as it has been by the advent of President Donald Trump — and its hugely important economic relationship with China, this is especially so for Australia.


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Just over a year ago the Australian Government’s Foreign Affairs White Paper adopted the Indo-Pacific idea as a new organising foreign policy framework. This potentially elevated India as a primary focus of Australian foreign policy attention. But the White Paper neither tested nor defined the idea, except geographically, although the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade afterwards reorganised itself around a core Indo-Pacific Group. It is difficult to see that the structural reorganisation has had any significant impact on foreign policy strategy in the year or so since it was initiated.

Understanding of what the Indo-Pacific idea meant and how it is supposed to re-shape Australian diplomacy in the White Paper has yet to be resolved, presenting an obstacle to strategic engagement with India.

In our lead essay this week, Priya Chacko and Jagannath Panda suggest that ‘[r]ecent signs suggest that the Australia–India strategic relationship has been put in the fridge’ and call for thinking through the relationship afresh because of the fundamental misunderstandings of both sides of the other’s strategic interests. ‘Without addressing their strategic bilateral differences’, they say, ‘the promotion of an Indo-Pacific security partnership will fall short’.

What are the circumstances in which each partner now must shape their strategic interests and where do those interests intersect?

The economic growth that’s come with globalisation has quickly changed the international balance of power. The United States, which has been the dominant power in the Asia Pacific region since World War II, is now challenged by the rise of China. The world is more interconnected than at any other time before. New technologies as well as the transmission of know-how and scientific knowledge lift opportunities and prosperity at the same time as they spawn political alienation and the reach of non-state actors who would do us harm. Risks to the global commons demand collective action. These are the big challenges that Australia and its partners in our region now confront. They are the challenges of a new multipolar world in which India seeks space.

What’s new is the intensification of the tensions around this change and its corrosion of the pillars on which Australia’s foreign policy has thus far been based. If the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper had been written when it was initiated well over two years ago, before the election of President Trump, the escalation of the Korean crisis, Brexit’s blow to Europe and the United States–China trade war, it would have had an unquestionably less urgent and less ambiguous tone. Instead, the events in the intervening two years resulted in a White Paper that expresses rock-solid faith in the US alliance relationship as the bastion of global rules and its importance to Australia’s navigating new uncertainty. That is Australia’s unipolar anchor.

As Chacko and Panda make clear, India’s approach to this new world is somewhat different from that of Australia.

India’s formulation of a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific’ emphasises not the reassertion of a US-led regional order but a multipolar order ‘within which Delhi can maintain its strategic autonomy, project its own leadership ambitions and follow a path of “multi-alignment” or “issue-based alignment”’. While India might share some of Australia’s concerns about Chinese domination in the region, Delhi does not see reliance on US power and leadership as the only or most important way to address the problem. The Indian Ocean also remains strategically more important to it than the Pacific, and Africa looms much larger.

The extent to which India and Australia share a common conception of a ‘rules-based order’, beyond vague references to respect for international law, Chacko and Panda argue, is by no means clear. As for enthusiasts of the Quad idea (that would bind the United States, Australia, Japan and India in military cooperation in the Indo Pacific), Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Indian navy chief, recently made clear ‘there wasn’t immediate potential for a quad’.

The Indo-Pacific idea also cuts across Australia’s core interests in the region — in Southeast Asia, with China, in relation to all of its primary regional arrangements, even those with India. But there is certainly more to the Indo-Pacific idea that is of importance to Australia than its military strategic conception. There is potential for embracing India, and South Asia more broadly, in regional arrangements that are consistent with regional strategic balance, India’s national development ambitions and maintaining the multilateral economic order. The Indian start was to Look East; now Act East. India’s participation in the East Asian arrangements is merely the beginning of that. India needs to be a participant in APEC. But India also needs to commit more deeply to its own engagement in the evolving trans-Asian enterprise and that will require re-conception of its participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership arrangement as central to its multipolar and global ambitions.

‘Australia and India are yet to nurture a common bilateral perspective to figure out the modes and means of their cooperation in the absence of more substantive economic ties’, Chacko and Panda conclude.

Australia, of all countries, should be wary about advocacy of some grand new regional strategy to meet the challenges it now faces diplomatically, including in engaging India. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s well-intentioned but wrong-headed and ill-fated Asia Pacific Community idea offers a cautionary tale.

Australia needs a more proactive regional diplomacy than has been evident for a few years — both because of the strife engulfing its domestic political leadership as well as the crisis in strategic comprehension.

Rather than advocacy of a grand new Indo-Pacific construct, the wise course with India will be more active bilateral and regional diplomacy that pursues collaboratively clearly defined strategic goals through the arrangements that are already in place across the region. The Varghese Report hopefully opens a new bilateral dialogue. There needs to be rapid elevation of bilateral dialogue and regional cooperation that engages a willing India more fulsomely in the process. The arrangements and the philosophy of regional cooperation already in place in East Asia are both sufficiently open and flexible for that to be by far the most practical and productive way forward in Australia–India engagement given the challenges we all now face.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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