The promises of Australia’s pivot to India
22 Feb 2024|

Vital new dimensions overtake the ‘C’ cliches of Australia’s old relationship with India—cricket, curry and Commonwealth.

The new C words are community and commerce and contest in the Indo-Pacific—and China.

Community is a concept broad enough to cover the one-million strong Indian diaspora in Australia, as well as the sort of community the Indo-Pacific can be.

Other big Cs are the contrast between today’s growing closeness and the chasm between India and Australia that stretched from India’s independence into the first decade of this century.

The chasm shrinks due to another set of Cs flowing from the China challenge (cooperate, compete and avoid conflict).

All this drives Australian and Indian convergence.

The Australian ‘pivot’ is a startling departure from those 50 years when the diplomatic temperature between New Delhi and Canberra hovered around zero. The chilly chasm defined much hard history: white Australia, the Cold War, alliance versus non-alignment, and India’s nuclear weapons status. It’s emblematic that at the end of the 20th century, relations were at sub-zero following the five nuclear bomb tests by India in May 1998.

In the realms of diplomacy and strategy, there was only one significant change in the way India viewed Australia during the second half of the 20th century. First, we were disdained as British lackeys. Then, from the Vietnam war, we were dismissed as mere stooges of the United States.

The cricket-curry-Commonwealth cliches were camouflage for coolness rather than clues to closeness. The old differences mean today’s convergence course can still be hit by the confusions of contrasting histories and habits of mind.

Yet the coming together over two decades has happened on many fronts, for reasons both simple and complex. The warming is created by people, driven by mutual interests, and responds to huge international shifts.

The world had changed and so has India. Last century’s champion of non-alignment finds new comforts in forms of alignment (although, please don’t use that word ‘alignment’).

The romance with the United States is the key feature of India’s diplomatic shift. Following the basic logic of balance-of-power politics, the American strategist Joe Nye writes, ‘India and the US seem fated not for marriage but for a long-term partnership—one that might last only as long as both countries remain concerned about China’.

Partnering the US, India looks afresh at another nation with the experience of a 70-year-alliance—we’ve gone from stooges to possible stalwarts.

Grappling with China and embracing the US, India has junked non-alignment while clinging to its labels. Such contortion marks the pain of abandoning what was both ideology and identity throughout the Cold War.

Non-aligned muscle memory twitches at Indian foreign policy, but the language of neutrality from super-power standoff offers little guidance. Today, New Delhi speaks of ‘strategic autonomy’. The contortions of autonomy produce descriptors such as the ‘US and India’s non-aligned alliance’

India cannot stand back from the superpower contest because it is a key contestant. The central balance of international power this century will be set in the Indo-Pacific. So ends a 500-year stretch of history when the central balance was made in Europe and decided by the West.

In maintaining the central balance in the Indo-Pacific, who will be the crucial resident power—India or China? Will China or India be number one in the Asian century?

Australia grapples with the thought that maybe the winner will be India because of its ‘inexorable superpower trajectory’. That’s the conclusion offered by Dr Andrew Charlton, an economist who entered federal parliament in the 2022 election as the Labor MP for Parramatta.

As senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Charlton knows how profoundly China shaped Australia’s economic prosperity and regional future. In 2014, Charlton wrote a Quarterly Essay Dragon’s Tail on what the China boom meant for the lucky country, arguing ‘few nations have been affected more by China’s transformation than Australia’.

Charlton now sees the transformation baton handed to India. The chair of the Parliamentary Friends of India has written a 240-page meditation enthusing about  Australia’s pivot to India. On the cover is a blurb from Foreign Minister Penny Wong, calling the book ‘a powerful declaration for the shared future between Australia and India’.

Charlton is fascinated by India’s ‘quixotic national journey from medieval powerhouse to colonial vassal to impecunious republic to its present incarnation as an emerging superpower’. Charlton thinks we are in the early period of the India century:

For all its twists and turns, India’s journey has brought it to a point of extraordinary promise. Just as the twentieth century was said to be the American Century, and the nineteenth century was the Age of Empire, we may well end the twenty-first century with India on top. India is already the largest nation in the world by population. And it’s growing so quickly that by 2070 its population should rival that of China, the United States and the European Union combined. India also has the fastest economic growth of any major nation. It has the second-largest armed forces and the fastest growing military capability in the world.

India crowds Charlton’s canvas, allowing only glimpses of the dragon and the eagle in the room. Those brief sightings of China and the US point to the power currents pushing at this pivot.

On the ‘Quad’ of Australia, India, Japan and the US, Charlton is clear on how China’s anger killed off Quad 1.0 in 2007: ‘Pressure from China was the immediate catalyst to dissolve the grouping.’ He isn’t as explicit about how Chinese pressure prompted the resurrection of Quad 2.0 in 2017. Instead, he quotes Penny Wong on the need for ‘strategic balance’ and the ‘power and influence of Japan and India’.

The pivot to India, Charlton writes, means understanding the limits India will impose, seeking always to keep its options open: ‘Australia should not mistake expressions of friendship for an alliance that implies any formal or exclusive obligation.’

Alliance is what Australia has with the US. With India, Australia can seek ever-closer partnership.

The difference between alliance and partnership and the meaning of new alignments must be defined and tested.

The Quad is a preliminary conclusion, facing many questions from China.

‘Australia’s pivot to India,’ Charlton writes, ‘should aspire to build a distinctive relationship that goes beyond transactional engagement and circumstantial alignment.’ The opportunity for the pivot ‘has only recently drifted within reach’ because the differences between Australia and India ‘seemed unbridgeable for many decades’.

Charlton’s caution against aspiring to alliance is buttressed by his description of the experiences that give the two nations ‘fundamentally incongruent outlooks’ on the world:

Economically, Australia became a trading nation, while India focused on self-reliance. Strategically, India’s preference for non-alignment was diametrically opposed to Australia’s enthusiasm for alliances. These orthogonal approaches prevented us from creating a relationship of substance in the second half of the twentieth century. They created a lacuna at the core of our relationship that no amount of diplomatic effort could fill. As the Indian proverb reads, ‘Nobody is born friend or born enemy, only circumstances bind you.’

The friend-enemy dynamic of strategic circumstances brings Australia and India closer. What has transformed ties is people. And people can build permanent foundations for the pivot. Charlton’s Sydney electorate has one of the largest Indian diaspora communities in Australia. The promise of the diaspora is the pulse of Charlton’s book:

The Indian Australian diaspora now numbers more than one million. India is Australia’s biggest source of skilled migrants and our second-biggest source of international students. Members of the Indian diaspora are active across all aspects of Australian life: business, medicine, arts, academia, politics, civil society and sport. This diaspora is young, energetic, ambitious, dynamic and influential.

The Indian diaspora will forever change the relationship. The human bridge banishes the old chasm. But a diaspora is no guarantee of smooth relations between nations. More than 1.4 million Australians identify as having Chinese ancestry and that diaspora has just suffered through a five year icy age between Beijing and Canberra.

The geopolitics of Australia’s pivot has polar elements—the attraction of India and the push of China.

Charlton judges that neither Australia nor India are ‘entirely clear about exactly what part it is willing to play, or what it expects of the other’. Australia has both security and economic aspirations: to be part of India’s extraordinary growth story and for India to help deliver regional stability. India wants Australia to support its arrival as ‘a first rank global power’.

‘As with any friendship,’ Charlton concludes, ‘its real strength is only tested in challenging times.’