Oz–India: this time it’s different
29 Sep 2015|


Worry about the sharemarket when cabbies offer hot buying tips. Quit the market when brokers claim: ‘this boom is different!’

The claim history has been defeated—‘This time it’s different!’—is ever an alarm.

With that noted, turn to the central argument of these columns on India and Australia: Yes, indeed! This time it’s different for the Oz–India relationship.

The boom–bust market cycle looks similar to the relationship ups and downs. This time, though, Australia and India can do the deeds to match the words, reaching for a closer and more interesting future.

To mount a ‘this-time-it’s-different case’ is to confront the astigmatism affliction: the weak or distorted view of reality so often evident over 70 years.

The way Canberra and New Delhi have viewed or framed each other is a long story of policy differences compounded by distortions and disturbances and lots of distrust.

The differences have been real enough. Then add the astigmatism—that inability to see each other clearly. The understanding gap became a habit of low expectations, influencing process and effort: too hard to do, too little return.

This time it’s different because the stakes are rising quickly. The incentives to get it right can modify the recurring down cycle.

Claiming it’ll go differently this time means confronting the consistent history of Oz–India disagreement. We’re not talking about any agreement to disagree—think instead of diplomatic daggers and bad tempered cross purposes.

The list is long: the Cold War, non-alignment, approaches to the Soviet Union, nuclear non-proliferation, India’s nuclear weapons status, APEC, the World Trade Organisation and the Doha round and farm trade. Even the early attempts at Indian Ocean regionalism were defined by Oz–India fights rather than any meeting of minds. Until recently, alliance with the US was close to the top of the catalogue. Different views, different realities in every case.

The history list is not to argue that Australia always gets it wrong. I went against many in the Oz commentariat by arguing that Australia’s non-proliferation interests in the region and the NPT commitment were more important than India—that we shouldn’t sell uranium to India. Put me on the losing side of that one.

Beyond uranium/nukes, this was about the need for Australia to have clear-sighted arguments with India about regional and national interests—the ability to say ‘No’. This month’s parliamentary report on the nuclear deal with India suggests Australia now has trouble even saying ‘Yes, but’.

Uranium was one of the few fights between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd that was actually about foreign policy: Julia in the India-importance-colours rolled Rudd’s no-sale stance. The Gillard decision was an Australian nod, even bow, to India’s status.

Resolving the uranium schism allowed Gillard’s Defence White Paper to embrace the new strategic vision of the Indo-Pacific.

The Abbott White Paper was set to repeat the Indo-Pacific mantra; expect the Turnbull White Paper to do the same.

India long framed Australia as a dominion—Brit lackey, Yank stooge. That view of Australia as constant client should improve as India draws closer to the US. My optimistic rendering sees scope for Oz–India strategic convergence as New Delhi treats Australia as something more than an obedient subaltern.

The convergence road, though, is long and bumpy—and the difficulties confronting the US and India are a larger version of the same story.

Joseph Nye captures the distance to be covered with his judgement that there’ll be no Indian-American alliance any time soon, given Indian public opinion. Nye predicts that the Washington–New Delhi relationship will continue to be unusual even as it gets stronger:

The two countries have a long history of confusing each other. By definition, any alliance with a superpower is unequal; so efforts to establish close ties with the United States have long run up against India’s tradition of strategic autonomy. But Americans do not view democratic India as a threat. On the contrary, India’s success is an important US interest, and several factors promise a brighter future for the bilateral relationship.

Australia can endorse much of the Nye prescription because the Canberra focus has shifted. Obviously, Australia no longer uses the Soviet Union or non-alignment as dominant frames for India. Nor can our Foreign Affairs Department run the line it used well into the mid-90s about ‘India’s lack of interest in opening up in its dealings with the rest of the world.’ This view identified Australia as a significant part of the rest of the world—never India’s perspective.

We no longer have that comic lament about Australia ignoring India. How exactly do 23 million people overlook 1.25 billion people? Astigmatism, indeed.

The policy poser for Australia is to remake its mental map of Asia: Southeast Asia and Indonesia in the foreground; China, Japan and Korea as the mountain range to the north; the US as both the north and south pole of Australia’s defence policy. Reformat and reframe to add another mountain in the Indian Ocean. The wider frame will take decades more effort. Past failures show how hard it will be for the Oz mindset and our view of the diplomatic landscape.

One of Australia’s great political wordsmiths, Paul Keating, offered a fine way to think of this by crunching the Asia Century White Paper into a vivid image. China and India, Keating said, are to be the largest economies in the world, and this is like switching the world’s magnetic field: ‘The intensity of this polarity shift is of such magnitude, all the filings of Australian foreign, trade, investment and cultural policy should find themselves going in the direction of that magnetic field.’

And that is why it’s possible to argue that this time it’s different. India is going to join China in switching the world’s magnetic field. That will open Australia’s eyes, despite the astigmatism affliction.