Politics and Prejudice
Looking at in purely strategic terms, a real concern regarding the present, and hopefully fading, focus on attacks on Indian students in Australia is that it has disallowed the two countries from exploring a larger strategic relationship.Australia and India have had a benign, distant relationship in the past largely revolving around cricket. The two didn’t really look beyond that. As an Australian foreign ministry survey of Indians some 15 years ago showed, Indians simply didn’t believe Australia had any technological or advanced economic abilities. Australian firms were disallowed from bidding for a contract to upgrade the tram system in Calcutta because it was believed beyond their technical ability.
Australians didn’t look too far beyond sports either.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, on his third visit to India as a minister, watched the recent Australian thrashing of the Indian hockey team with interest because he was an avid hockey player in his youth. But he says many of the hockey coaches in his day were Anglo-Indian migrants.
The Indian economy began to change Australian perceptions.
But even then, the focus was on and off. Consider ANZ Bank which is once again considering raising its standard in India. It’s been in and out of India so often, I’ve lost count. China’s gargantuan appetite for natural resources also distracted Australian attention.
The surge in Indian migrants and, later, students began to change this. As a similar bridge had done with India and the US, the Indians who went to Australia with a better understanding of the breadth of Down Under’s capabilities.
India’s economy is also catching up on the manufacturing side and its appetite for natural gas, coal and other stuff down under the earth is increasing. It won’t match China’s for a number of reasons, but India is set to become Australia’s number three trading partner in the near future.
But where the exploration is and was starting to lead to genuine recovery was in the realm of strategy. Australia remains close to the US, but the sheer size of its economic relationship with China is making it triangulate. Some Indian officials have wondered if Australia is “Finlandizing”.
One hears less of this following Australia’s Defence White Paper and the sparring between Canberra and Beijing over Tibet, Uighurs and Rio Tinto the past year. India’s common “values” with Australia now mean a lot more to Canberra. Or, as I have told Ozzie audiences when I was asked about Australian executives being arrested for espionage in India, “It could happen.
But the difference with China is the post-arrest due process. Indian police would have to explain the charges, show the judge the evidence or the fellows would have to be released.”
Australia and India can be argued to have some obvious areas of common strategic concern. These include an interest in keeping China on a constructive geopolitical path, keeping the US inside the Asian power loop and keeping the Indian Ocean free of hassles. I can foresee plenty of tactical differences: Asian stability through great power vs multilateral means, how far and close one should be to China and the US, and things like banning whaling and nuclear tests.
But the student violence and the degree to which it has led young Indians to believe Australians have something against brown skin will distract the two countries from the sort of long-term engagement that building a strategic relationship will require.
The Indian private sector, thankfully, has continued its discovery of Terra Australis apace. The multimillion dollar investments in Australian gas and coal are sensible. I was more excited to hear of Mahindra buying two aerospace tech firms in the Perth area – this was a genuine contrast with the blinkered Crocodile Dundee image of the past.
It doesn’t help, as it is, that the US’s civil nuclear deal with India has ensured that nuclear engagement has become the litmus test of friendliness for Indian strategists. Perhaps the Australians have to surrender a few cricket or hockey victories. Smith was asked about that, but said, “Somethings are too much to ask for.”