Australia should work harder on its official and unofficial diplomacy to strengthen its ties to India, after a new survey revealed Indians had a mixed perception of the two countries’ relationship.
The nationwide survey of 1233 Indians, conducted in seven languages, found that Indians generally have a positive image of Australia, seeing it as a good place to get an education and raise a family.
Australia ranked in the top four nations Indians felt closest to, behind only the United States, Japan and Singapore, according to the Australia-India Institute and the Lowy Institute survey.
Yet Indians are less convinced that Australians feel so warmly towards them. While 51% agree that Australians are welcoming people, almost two-thirds said they felt Australia is a dangerous place for Indian students – the result of a series of widely-reported violent attacks against Indians in 2009 and 2010.
These events have left their mark on Indians’ perceptions of Australia, with 61% of Indians thinking that the attacks were driven mainly by racism.
The director of the Australia-India Institute Amitabh Mattoo said while the Gillard government had strengthened the nations’ ties - especially by signing a long-awaited uranium export deal - far more needs to be done.
“Federal funding for India-focused institutions is already only a fraction of the tens of millions of dollars committed to similar programs for China and the United States [by the Australian government],” said Professor Mattoo.
“The core problem concerns negative perceptions about student safety generated largely by media reporting. Public diplomacy efforts should be expanded.”
Professor Mattoo suggested several ways to improve relations, including a documentary on the lives of Indian students in Australia; an exchange program for media leaders from the two countries; and subsidised language training, especially for Australian diplomats, business people, journalists and non-government organisations.
One of the most positive results from the survey was that 75% of Indians believe Australia is a stand-out destination for education, ranked second only to the United States.
A Professor of Business from the University of Sydney, Gail Pearson, said that represents a great opportunity for Australian universities.
But she warned against complacency, saying other countries including China were investing far more in their universities than before and working hard to attract more Indian students.
Professor Pearson pointed to the fact that more than 50% of Indians surveyed described China as a good place to be educated.
The number of Indians coming to Australia to study has dropped dramatically in recent years. The Australian Council for Educational Research found that higher education visas issued to Indian students plunged by 70% from a 2009 high of 92,300 to just 29,500 last year.
Emeritus Professor of Asian history at Latrobe University Brian Stoddart said the on-going fallout from the attacks several years ago and the high Australian dollar had taken their toll on Indian student numbers.
But he was heartened by the positive perception of Australian as a good place to study, saying “Australia should look towards a serious investment in boosting this advantage”.
India’s economic growth and its growing demand for energy and resources, as well as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s 2011 reversal of Labor’s uranium ban, have propelled India to become Australia’s fourth-largest export market.
This has greatly affected Indian perceptions of Australia, with 70% of Indians saying that selling uranium was important to Australia’s relations with India, and only 5% saying it was not.
Professor Stoddart said that finding highlighted the need for better targeted public relations campaigns about the issues that matter most to Indians, such as uranium exports.
Cricket continues to be more than just a game for Indians. Three-quarters of those surveyed said cricket helped deliver three diplomatic benefits: projecting a positive image of Australia, a positive image of India, and helping the two countries grow closer.
Only a third of people felt cricket could cause trouble in relations between India and Australia.
University of Wollongong digital media lecturer Sukhmani Khorana said while Indians love cricket, more efforts should be made to support arts and cultural exchanges.
“In terms of [Indian] middle class public perceptions, Masterchef Australia, OzFest and performers such as Gurrumul and Gotye seem to have made a much bigger difference. In other words, arts and culture diplomacy beyond cricket is crucial and should continue to be encouraged,” Dr Khorana said.
“Improving the perception of India and the Indian diaspora in Australia is equally crucial, especially given that English-literate middle class India is sensitive to the global media coverage it receives. Again, this can be done, and is being done by moving beyond the Bollywood and cricket stereotypes.”