The past decade has seen a large increase in Indian migration to Australia. In 2011-12, 29,018 Indians became permanent migrants, the highest such number from any one country. Fellow democracies with shared values, concerns and interests, and now a growing community-centric relationship, India and Australia should have strong similarities. As flanking states in the eastern Indian Ocean, for example, they are critical to an emerging arena of geopolitics. Yet, somehow strategic outcomes have been less than perfect.
To examine why and make appropriate recommendations, the Australia India Institute put together a six-member Taskforce on Perceptions nine months ago. Its report, Beyond the Lost Decade, was released on 17 July and points to a piquant paradox. Australia and India have more in common than many other countries – but these commonalities themselves tend to inhibit the relationship, not help it grow.
Cricket, the Commonwealth and the English language, the report says, have proved both a blessing and a bane. In its own way, each framework has hindered either country’s perception. In admiring Australia’s cricket team, Indians are exposed to its sporting ethic, but also to the one national institution that is perhaps least reflective of the multiculturalism and ethnic diversity of contemporary Australia. This leaves many Indians innocent of just how integrated Australia is with Southeast Asia today. India’s Ministry of External Affairs is itself unsure as to where Australia fits in with the Asian strategic calculus.
For Australia, the Indian establishment’s dexterity with the English language has been appealing but also misleading. “In the view of some Australian scholars of India,” the Taskforce says, “the elite’s fluency in English has acted as a barrier to deeper Australian familiarity with the country, creating the illusion that understanding Indian languages and culture – unlike their Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese equivalents – is unnecessary”.
When it comes to the Commonwealth, India and Australia are members of a multilateral club searching for a modern idiom and a raison d’être. As the club’s heavyweights they are best suited to providing this, but have studiously avoided any meaningful conversation on the Commonwealth’s future. As the Taskforce recommends, the Ministry of External Affairs and AusAID could “combine and contribute financial, material or human resources” for humanitarian assistance and technical capacity-building projects in third countries, beginning with “less-developed states of the Commonwealth”.
There is a hard-power dimension to such cooperation. In the absence of support from within the Commonwealth, smaller member-states will inevitably turn to emerging powers outside the club for technical capacity and economic assistance. India and Australia are addressing this issue separately. The point is, will they be better served addressing it in conjunction?
Since the end of the Cold War, the India-Australia relationship has had several false starts. Maritime cooperation was being discussed in even the early 1990s but accidents intervened – Canberra’s overstated response to the Indian nuclear tests of 1998; a decade later, the clumsy dismantling of the Quadrilateral (the fledgling partnership between the two countries and the United States and Japan); the uranium issue, settled only in late 2011 when Prime Minister Julia Gillard overcame opposition from domestic anti-nuclear lobbies and agreed to sell uranium to India.
Both countries need to be watchful, lest this history becomes an all-purpose excuse for not showing diplomatic urgency. Neither should problematic episodes become triggers for extreme interpretation. For example, it would be unfair if the legal quagmire and payment delays Australian contractors have faced, often for no fault of their own, following the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi were to influence the entirety of Australian business perception of opportunities in India.
Likewise, the street violence against Indian students in Melbourne and other cities in 2009-10 was deplorable but cannot take away from the fact that Australia remains a welcoming home for thousands of Indian migrants. Authorities in Australia have responded by cracking down on dubious educational institutions, and facilitating those students genuinely seeking education.
From India’s energy security to its food security, intelligence sharing on terrorism to joint exercises of Special Forces, naval and anti-piracy coordination to constructing a new architecture for the Indo-Pacific (the confluence of the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific), the canvas for Canberra and New Delhi is vast. It awaits an overarching doctrine for India’s Australasia thrust, and political ownership in New Delhi of such a doctrine.
A start could be made by expediting the overdue territorial restructuring of the Indian Foreign Ministry and, as the AII Taskforce recommends, splitting the 26-nation Southern Division, “hiving off part of its mandate to a newly-constituted Indo-Pacific or Australasia Division” that could include Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the Pacific Islands.