Alfred Deakin’s book “Irrigating India”, noted that the “future relations…possess immeasurable potencies. Their geographical proximity cannot but exercise a very real and reciprocal influence…in each.”
What Deakin said above holds true for India and Australia relations as both countries despite having multiple commonalties, the relations were on a periphery which was converted into strategic ties very late in 2009. This article shall give an overview of the India-Australia relations and how they have progressed to be of strategic importance i.e. since the 20th century to present and their untapped potential is emphasized upon.
India and Australia share a colonial history emanating from common colonial master i.e. Great Britain. All commercial and governance matters of New South Wales, a penal colony of British East India Company were controlled through Kolkata Headquarters. India proved to be a vital lifeline for New South Wales as a cargo of foodstuffs and stores for the struggling population were sent from Calcutta in 1792. The lifeline was secured when the British government directed to continue to source urgent supplies directly from Calcutta, rather than from London. Therefore, as the author in his article “The Imprint of India at Elizabeth Farm” states that improving the standard of living in New South Wales was attributed to sea trade from India because by 1840 a ship left for Sydney to India on an average of every 4.5 days.
Also, Indian labour was being recruited to work in Queensland’s canefields and fruit plantations. This proximity of India and Australia can be evinced from the fact that the two nations established diplomatic ties even before India got independence in 1947, by establishing the India Trade Office in Sydney in the year 1941. In response, an official Australian mission opened a diplomatic office in New Delhi in 1944. India’s first High Commissioner to Australia arrived in Canberra in 1945. In fact, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Report, 1990 points out to the attempts by the then NSW Premier, Bertram Stevens for establishing close commercial links between Australia and India.
The next phase in India-Australia relations began when India achieved independence but the new nation was born amidst rising global tensions due to the Cold War. Australia in that phase was quite obviously influenced by the western world with which it shared its bond of race, political legacy and corresponding ideals. But there was noticeable warming of the relations between two friendly nations when Australia supported India morally during the Indo-China War of 1962 and regards to the border dispute between India and China.
Besides, the act of India moving closer to erstwhile USSR reflected as if India was not committed to the cause of anti-communism and hence the relations between the two countries became dull and uninspiring. Adding onto this was global criticisms received by India for 1999 nuclear tests, these two were irritants in the friendly relations between two countries for quite a number of years.
But with the collapse of USSR in 1991 the scenario of global politics changed, in that year Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Report on Australia-India Relations: Trade and Security, 1990 pointed out that “India and Australia ‘have been unusually distant in their relations given their close cooperation on a broad range of Commonwealth issues and their shared cultural and institutional inheritances from the UK and the report recognised an increasing number of opportunities for the two countries to draw closer together”. The report also pointed to the fact that the Australian foreign policy has generally neglected India forgetting mutual interests and common heritage. This view was also confirmed by High Commissioner of India to Australia Mr Parthasarthy that due to lack of knowledge and interest about the globalized and liberalized market in India, the presence of Australian Companies is a rare sight.
Though visit in 1985 by Australian Foreign Minister Hon Bill Hayden to India was to limit the damage of drifting away of the two countries and laid the foundation of a solid relationship between two countries. To further give an impetus to the growth of Australia-India relations in trade and other realms, Australia-India Council (AIC) was established in 1992 that promotes Australia’s interests concerning India by supporting activities for enhancing awareness and understanding between the peoples and institutions of two nations. As a reciprocal move Government of India established India-Australia Council (IAC) in 1995, with influential Indians in business, government, sport and other areas with IAC secretariat within the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
At the political level, to further cement the bilateral relations, Vice-President Narayanan visited Australia in 1994 who was the most senior Indian leader ever to visit Australia. For its part, the 25th Prime Minister of Australia John Howard (1996-2007) recognized the important role that India could play in the security architecture of the wider Asia-Pacific region, he commented: “increasingly, we are looking to our west and observing India’s growing political and economic weight and India is looking east seeking to forge stronger links with our region”.
The East Asia Analytical Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 1994 published report viz. “India’s Economy at the Midnight Hour: Australia’s India Strategy”, that was first thorough examination of trade and investment opportunities for Australia in India. The report suggested, “a strategy for Australian business and policymakers designed to promote mutually beneficial economic cooperation would strengthen the bilateral relationship”. Thus, from 1995 onwards the ruling parties of Australia started emphasizing on India as a natural partner to Australia’s national and international priorities. In 2009, Prime Minister Rudd made a visit to India in November 2009, during which the two countries announced a ‘strategic partnership’. The Joint Declaration India-Australia Security Cooperation (as provided on the website of Ministry of External Affairs, India) issued in 2009 pledged co-operation in areas such as maritime security, counter-terrorism and defence dialogue plus “policy synergy on regional affairs in Asia”.
The most popular Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan commented: “India should launch Look East Policy 2.0 with Australia in the centre, Australia possessed untapped potential as an economic and strategic partner for India.”. Besides, the relations between India and Australia can be gauged from the highlights in the following realms:
- Economic and Business Realm
Both countries have entered into negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in 2011. The trade-in goods and services between the two nations have grown from $13.6 billion in 2007 to $30.4 billion in 2018. There is a forum/ mechanism viz. India-Australia CEO Forum for business from both nations to engage directly on ways to build the bilateral trade and investment relationship.
- Civil Nuclear Realm
Australia has 40 per cent reserve of uranium and can prove a surety to India for its energy security requirement. Both India and Australia signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2014 which came into force in late 2015. In 2020, both countries signed a deal to supply India with critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt which Australia only does with its strategic trade partners. This reflects an attempt to broaden and diversify over-dependence for rare earth minerals from China.
- Realm of Political and International Cooperation
A clear example can be seen from Australian Prime Minister Howard’s strong support to India’s entry into the ASEAN Regional Forum and publicly backing of India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Both countries have also had parliamentary exchanges since 1992 and 1993 and Australian Delegation also attended International Parliamentary Union Conferences held in India in 1991 and 1993.
With the recent virtual summit in 2020 between Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison is also testimony to the fact that signifies the feeling of trust and importance of each other and as noted by The Diplomat is one of its article “the pandemic must not distract Australia from its imperative to significantly deepen its economic and strategic relationship with India.” Moreover, as part of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), Australian and Indian Foreign and Defence Ministers decided to meet to discuss strategic issues in a ‘2+2 format’ at least every two years.
- Realm of Defence Cooperation
Both India and Australia envision the Indo-Pacific security architecture in its Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific 2020 where two nations envision free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region to support the freedom of navigation, over-flight and peaceful and cooperative use of the seas and peaceful settlement of disputes in adherence with UNCLOS.
The Blueprint of Australian Foreign Policy released in 2017 prioritize India in the front rank of Australia’s international partnerships with regards to India’s strategic engagement with East Asia and the United States is strongly supported by Australia.
India’s Army, Air Force, and Navy of India each have cooperation and engagement with their Australian counterparts through key platforms for strategic dialogue such as the Annual 1.5 Track Defence Strategic Dialogue and Annual Defence Policy Talks. AUSTRA HIND (a Special Forces Army Exercise), KAKADU (a multilateral maritime exercise), AUSINDEX (a bilateral maritime exercise) and Exercise Pitch Black (a multilateral air exercise) are few examples of close cooperation with Defence Forces of Australia. India is also deliberating to invite Australia to participate in Malabar a Joint Exercise of Naval Forces of India, US and Japan. The recently concluded Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) in 2020 Virtual Summit between the two Prime Ministers enables reciprocal access to each other’s naval and military facilities and increases the two countries’ capacity to operate together.
In light of developments both historical and current, it can safely be assumed about the friendly nature of two nations whose potential has not been harnessed till date, both India and Australia see each other as natural allies which have become more evident how Australia concerned about the rise of Chinese Power in Indo-Pacific, considers India as a regional power to offset Chinese aggression.
More so, the recent development vouching for closer Australia-India friendship is reflected in Australia’s India Economic Strategy 2035 which is based on three pillars viz. economics, geopolitics and people encompassing ten sectors for cooperation ranging from education, agri-business to defence exports and others. It will be of relevance:
“Timing has always been a challenge in Australia’s relationship with India.
In the past substance often lagged enthusiasm. The risk is that we are not moving fast enough and Australia might fall behind as other countries accord India a higher priority.
Momentum is important to relationships….
To counter this, Australia needs an ambitious India strategy. This report recommends that we should strive by 2035 to lift India into our top three export markets, to make India the third-largest destination in Asia for Australian outward investment, and to bring India into the inner circle of Australia’s strategic partnerships, and with people to people ties as close as any in Asia…….
The Australia India relationship has had false starts in the past but that must not distract us from the opportunities of the future.
This report seeks comprehensively to set out those opportunities.”
In conclusion, the lines from a document of Australian Parliament can be quoted to understand how India and Australia are siblings who lost warmth but still are connected, “both the countries share the values of pluralism, liberal democracy, commitment to rule of law, English language, parliamentary democracy and of course friendly competition on the cricket fields…”. Further, it would be apt to conclude the article with words of Australian Prime Minister Morrison “its time our relationship to go deeper”.
Title image courtesy: SBS Hindi
- India Country Brief https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/india/Pages/india-country-brief
- The Diplomat, Australia-India Relations: What To Expect From Modi-Morrison Virtual Summit, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/australia-india-relations-what-to-expect-from-the-modi-morrison-virtual-summit/
- India-Australia Bilateral Relations Brief, Ministry of External Affairs, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Bilateral_Brief_australiya_sep_2019.pdf
- David Scott, Handbook of India’s International Relations, Routledge International.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies