ASPI’s decades: Eyeing India

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

Australia’s hope–fear equations on India and China have been through contrasting evolutions during ASPI’s two decades.

At the start of the 21st century, dealings with China were optimistically warm as Australia’s resources sales soared exponentially.

With India, official exchanges were frigid and tetchy, in no way reflecting buoyant trade and the strength of what diplomat-speak calls ‘people-to-people links’.

Engagement with India needed a cautious re-start from the low point of India’s five nuclear bomb tests in May 1998, when venom flowed between Canberra and New Delhi. India rejected the tone, content and vehemence of Australia’s reaction to it proclaiming nuclear-weapons status.

Australia was seen as siding with the US (and even China) in trying to marginalise and pressure India. The Indian arguments to Australia had a familiar tone—part self-righteous, part aggrieved—but they pointed to deeply different perceptions.

In the first decade of the century, Canberra’s cautions about Beijing were carefully coded, hardly shadowing the optimistic vistas. Canberra’s doubts and distance from New Delhi were all too public.

India dismissed Australia as a hypocritical stooge of the US, happy to shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella while wanting to deny India its own nuclear shield. The argument was emblematic of an Australia–India strategic relationship long in zero territory, often in negative mode.

ASPI’s earliest international effort was to help establish the Australia–India security roundtable as the only ‘second track’ security dialogue between the two countries.

Former ASPI executive director Peter Abigail wrote that, from its inception, the institute had been a focus for great Australian interest in India, two nations that ‘have lived in each other’s blind spots’.

Australia had turned to East Asia and the US, Abigail wrote, while India’s eyes had been on the two nuclear-armed neighbours on its borders: Pakistan and China.

As a US ally, Australia’s priorities have tended to be Western in character. As one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War, India’s priorities have traditionally been non-Western. But a new sense of dynamism in the Asian regional security order is drawing the two countries closer together.

After the third Australia–India roundtable in 2003, Jenelle Bonnor and Varun Sahni wrote that the two countries had covered a considerable distance since bilateral defence and security relations were re-established in 2000, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus.

They described re-engagement involving common security concerns, converging strategic horizons and complementary militaries (Australia’s ‘boutique’ military and India’s ‘mass’ forces). The foundation had been laid ‘for a more substantial and predictable security relationship’ with the opportunity to do much together in the Indian Ocean.

After the fourth Australia–India roundtable, in 2005, Bonnor wrote that the economic realities of the bilateral relationship were not reflected in strategic and defence relations: ‘there is no natural constituency for Australia in India, and vice versa’. Many influential Indians had not forgiven Australia for its reaction to India’s 1998 nuclear tests.

To the mystification of Australians, this remains a fairly large bone of contention that is regularly picked over by Indians. Together with the still present perception that Australia is a ‘stalking horse’ for the United States, this means Australia often does not get the hearing it should in India. For some reason, it has proven difficult to put the past behind us.

At ASPI’s global forces conference in 2005, Sahni said India’s coming great-power role would help change the map of Asia.

There is a continent-wide security architecture that is finally arriving in the Asia–Pacific, perhaps for the first time, certainly for the first time since European colonialism. It’s a continent-wide security interdependence, and this security interdependence is linked clearly to the rise of China. In other words, China makes Asia a region.

The 2006 US–India nuclear agreement ‘made India both a de jure and a de facto nuclear power’, as Amit Gupta noted, pushing along ‘significant strides’ in the two countries’ military relationship. The long-term challenge for India, he mused, was countering the rise of China and its perceived incursion into the Indian Ocean: ‘[R]esisting Chinese pressure will require a greater commonality of interests with the United States, since Indian forces on their own may have less success in deterring Chinese pressure’.

In 2007, Sandy Gordon said underlying many of Canberra’s decisions about India was an awareness of a difficult Asian regional security order: ‘India is currently basking in its emergent large power status and the relationship with Australia is not its top priority. But the relationship has a promising future, and it is likely that the two countries will move towards some form of closer partnership in the coming decade.’

In 2009, India and Australia announced agreement on a ‘strategic partnership’ and a joint declaration on security cooperation. By 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was able to change Labor Party policy to scrap what she called the ‘irrational’ refusal to sell uranium to India. India could source uranium elsewhere, she wrote, but it’d ‘become a question of status and face. Australia’s attitude was received as an insult’.

In 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was in New Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to witness the signing of a civil nuclear agreement. The agreement was a diplomatic tool to build trust with India and move bilateral ties forward, Kyle Springer wrote:

The uranium deal is first and foremost a diplomatic gesture meant to jumpstart Australia’s broader engagement with India. Both countries share an interest in Indian Ocean maritime security and bilateral military relations can be built around that common interest. We should expect to see strengthened dialogue between India and Australia on security issues. And we can expect that more joint military exercises and military-to-military exchanges will also be announced.

In 2018, the former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, submitted to the prime minister a report on an India economic strategy out to 2035, that also saw it as a geopolitical partner.

Writing for The Strategist, Varghese said India has a deep strategic competition with China, but ‘is not about to become an ally of the US or anyone else’. While maintaining a firm attachment to strategic autonomy, he said, India had a growing level of comfort in strategic cooperation with the US and its allies such as Japan and Australia

Australia’s shift from an Asia–Pacific to an Indo-Pacific framework put India squarely into Australia’s strategic matrix, Varghese wrote:

India shares our democratic bias, but the political character of the Chinese state isn’t its primary strategic concern. For Australia, a democratic China becoming the predominant Indo-Pacific power is a very different proposition to an authoritarian China occupying that position. India’s concerns about a powerful China would exist irrespective of whether China were a democracy.