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India gains its rightful place in the Asian century white paper

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper places India in a position of much greater significance than it has previously achieved in our national consciousness. After decades of neglect and even a…

India faces many challenges as it rises to prominence in the Asian century. EPA/Jagadeesh NV

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper places India in a position of much greater significance than it has previously achieved in our national consciousness. After decades of neglect and even a history of suspicion about India’s strategic designs, Australia now clearly attaches serious importance to India across the board – from trade and investment to cultural, sporting education and migration links.

The timing of the launch could not have been better, coming just two weeks after a state visit by prime minister Julia Gillard to New Delhi. There, Gillard underlined the increasing importance of India for Australia, announcing plans to remove some lingering irritants in the relationship, by starting negotiations for a safeguards treaty so Australia can proceed with uranium sales to India. The white paper further signals Australia’s new thinking about more comprehensive engagement with India.

The India of the future

India is identified as one of five key regional nations that are most important to Australia, along with China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. This is not surprising. India has emerged as increasingly attractive to Australia for exports of commodities, as a supplier of large numbers of full-fee paying international students and for two-way investment.

Indeed, the paper projects India as the world’s number three economy by 2025, and with its youthful demographic profile India may become the most economically vibrant destination for Australia’s energy exports, education and other services. The economic imperatives are well understood.

The report is informed and clear-sighted about both the opportunities and risks that face India. India’s middle class will grow in number. The report does not present figures for the size of India’s middle class but other estimates for recent years range from 14 to 200 (or even 500) million; clearly, much depends on which consuming groups are included in the definition.

Their disposable income will also rise. In the future Indians will come to Australia in significant numbers as tourists, students, businesspeople and migrants. Indians will continue to move from the countryside to cities. The growing requirement for food and infrastructure will generate continuing demand for resources from Australia.

Challenges ahead

But the path ahead is not a smooth one. India will face many challenges. It will have to secure sources of energy for its huge and still growing population. Global warming will pose difficult challenges for agriculture and coastal populations. India’s large cohort of young people will require huge investments in education and training institutions on a scale beyond anything the country has yet tackled. Regional disparities, caste and religious discrimination and the low status of too many of India’s women are also recognised as significant impediments which India will have to overcome.

The report also recognises that India’s unique development model, which is driven by services rather than manufacturing, as was the case in East Asia, also has significant risks. If India is to employ its huge number of semi-skilled young people in manufacturing, it will need to cut government red tape, make land acquisition less cumbersome and free up restrictions on the hiring and firing of workers.

Switching the hyphens

Also well understood is India’s rising strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region, including, of course, a key role in the Indian Ocean where Australia and India can cooperate on a range of issues. More implicit is the broadening of Australia’s strategic thinking beyond the previous approach to India that was narrowly constructed in the context of South Asia. For the past half century this meant “India–Pakistan”, a hyphen signalling that in Australia’s strategic perspective, India and Pakistan were inextricably linked and deserving of equal treatment, despite differences in their population size, political governance and economic and legal structures.

The white paper signals that the hyphen with Pakistan is gone. But now a different type of hyphenation appears to be in place – with China. For example, the paper emphasises that China and India will remain Asia’s two economic growth centres; visitor numbers to Australia from China and India will continue to increase; and importantly, Australia’s relationship with China and India will be the immediate priority for future development. More on this linkage is likely to come in Australia’s defence white paper due early next year.

Teaching Hindi

One of the paper’s major surprises is the proposal to make Hindi – India’s main language – one of four priority languages, with Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian.

Hindi has barely figured in foreign language teaching in Australia, although the Asian Studies Association of Australia has always argued for its importance. While this is a welcome move, the real challenge is effective implementation.

Student demand has been weak, and Australian universities have never paid serious attention to teaching Hindi, so there is a serious lack of professionally trained Hindi language teachers. Simply recruiting Hindi-speaking residents in Australia to fill teaching positions as a cost-saving measure will set the program off to a flawed start.

Only a well planned, long-term strategy and significant investment in training skillful teachers can produce the pool of Hindi-speaking businessmen, public servants, educators and citizens that Australia needs to pursue the close linkages with India envisaged in the Asian century white paper.