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Indian foreign minister’s visit highlights growing ties with Australia

Posted By and on October 10, 2022 @ 18:00

With Indian Foreign Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Australia for his second trip here this year, much of the reaction will no doubt focus on his country’s supposed weakness towards Russia.

Indeed, it has been possible recently to form the impression that India is playing spoiler to Western efforts on Russia and was a latecomer to resisting Chinese regional hegemony via the Quad.

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of India’s history, ambitions and present predicament. What needs to be understood, including in Canberra, is that the real game is India’s monumental shift from non-alignment to the role of strategic balancer and that this realignment is vital for Australia’s long-term security and wider Indo-Pacific stability.

In this context, Jaishankar’s visit—during which he met with Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles—is extremely important. It’s the first time an Indian foreign minister has visited Australia twice in a year—following a visit in February centred on the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting. This is a clear signal from New Delhi that it views its partnership with Australia as central to its national interests and to its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The Australia–India relationship has come an enormous way over the past decade, both bilaterally and through the Quad. Wong and Jaishankar met multiple times in September alone. The relationship’s improvement has been its focus on security. No longer do we rely on cricket and cultural ties to maintain the friendship, but rather a joint understanding that it is our security and sovereignty that will bind us.

The Albanese government is signalling its understanding that India is crucial to Australia’s future and to stability in the Indo-Pacific and that, therefore, it will continue to deepen the bilateral relationship as a top-tier strategic partnership. It is essential that this continues to be followed through on in both countries while Delhi realigns.

Because of India’s border skirmishes with China in 2020 and the Quad’s revitalisation from 2019, many observers have talked as if India has only recently discovered the risk of Chinese regional hegemony.

However, throughout the Cold War, India grew to see China as a far greater threat than did the US and allies, including Australia. India’s relationship with the Soviet Union and then Russia was borne out of necessity as it sought essential defence technology that it was unable to get elsewhere. And while Australia felt that it was the first country to shift its thinking on Beijing’s aggression from 2017, it was no surprise to India, which has long been standing up for human rights by granting asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 and defending territorial integrity through a border war with China in 1962.

It can therefore be frustrating for India to be lectured on how it should uproot its Russia relationship in a matter of months while it tries to navigate rapidly evolving dynamics and deepen its strategic partnership with the West.

India does, even if quietly, recognise that its dependence on Russia is a problem, and is concerned about the growing Sino-Russian partnership. That is why it has taken steps to diversify away from Russian defence imports and has openly criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Delhi has already made progress in realigning and diversifying away from Russian defence dependence, but it will take years, if not decades to do so—such major shifts always do. No country frolicks around with a core need such as a viable defence capability. Look at what Australia has put itself through with submarines.

Australia’s focus must continue to be on working with India to counter and deter Beijing’s malign actions while simultaneously increasing partnerships in Southeast Asia. Having aligned through the Quad and having many areas of commonality, we can patiently work with India as it weans itself off Russia with help from friends.

Jaishankar has been vital to India’s global outlook but there is a need to ensure the relationship and its focus is embedded and institutionalised so that it does not rely on him and lasts beyond him.

The richest vein to tap right away is cyber and critical technologies, which is of direct relevance to both countries’ security and sovereignty. Australia has been rightly lauded for its leadership role in the area of 5G, making the decision to prohibit Chinese company involvement in its 5G network before the US and UK did so. India not only aligned on 5G but has also banned major Chinese social media platforms such as TikTok and WeChat.

Its role in countering Beijing’s disinformation about the purposes of the Quad, reassuring a nervous region that it is not an ‘Asian NATO’, should be instructive for Australia in relation to AUKUS. As Jaishankar said recently of the strategic realignment taking place in the Indo-Pacific: ‘Those who connect the dots would surely agree that we are really now at the cusp of something big.’

AUKUS, so vital to Australia’s future security, is viewed suspiciously by some in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Recent reports revealed that India played a key role in working with International Atomic Energy Agency member states to ensure that a draft Chinese resolution, which argued that the AUKUS initiative violated the responsibilities of Australia, the UK and the US under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, did not get majority support. This demonstrated the power that India wields in international affairs and institutions.

Differences in the relationship can be expected, including on issues such as human rights and visas, but the improvement in relations is evident in the fact that these issues are now discussed openly. The two countries have become sufficiently close that tensions are raised and managed, not ignored to simmer and eventually boil over.

Australia–India relations needs special attention involving simultaneous ambition and patience. India is a country of a billion people, whose weight will help determine the fate of our region. It is becoming ever more apparent that we need this huge, democratic Indo-Pacific player by our side.

As Jaishankar visits for a second time in eight months, we know Australia is figuring in New Delhi’s thinking. We know our ability to influence India is greater than it has ever been, and that the opportunity exists to solidify the relationship as two great friends who are becoming indispensable to each other’s long-term national strategies.

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