January 2019 \ News \ DIPLOMACY—COMMENT
India and Australia Need to re-craft an old relationship

India-Australia relations are a classic example of unrealised potential and a tragic tale of consistently missing opportunities, despite multiple areas of strategic convergence and shared interests. It is almost as if apathy holds back both countries from trying to break new ground in a significant manner. This has been frustrating and disappointing ...

By Amit Das gupta

Outstanding Australian diplomats like John McCarthy; Peter Varghese, former Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and High Commissioner to India; and present High Commissioner HarinderSidhu can only do so much. They have championed a more robust and substantively upgraded relationship but are hindered by a lack political support from Canberra. Take the case of Varghese’s comprehensive, indeed outstanding, India Economic Strategy Report that was commissioned by the Liberal government, for instance. The report has not yet found favour with Canberra, despite the strong public endorsement it has received. Many believe it would be buried because Beijing found it offensive.

Even Labour has been hesitant about a bold transformation of its bilateral relationship. As recently as October 2018, Bill Shorten, in a policy speech on what might be expected if the Labour government comes to power in the forthcoming elections, managed only a one-line reference to India, South Korea and Japan, while endorsing the importance that Australia attaches to the Indo-Pacific. This can be seriously disappointing.

The elephant in the room that Canberra grapples with is that it sees India through the lens of Washington and China. This is understandable because both are strong relationships that Australia has invested in over decades. Few might know, for instance, that Mandarin is the second most widely spoken language in Australia. Both Liberal and Labourrecognise that Australian foreign policy must reflect the compulsions of a rapidly changing present and an unpredictable future, but are unable to see beyond the past.

All of a sudden, there was hope that the relationship would reach new frontiers and that the years of neglect would slip away quickly

For decades and even after Modi’s historic visit, Canberra is navigating a difficult terrain by trying to seek a relationship with India to counterbalance Beijing, while simultaneously being mindful of not annoying Beijing. This is hardly likely to work.