Getting over India’s blue about Oz

Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard deserves a small prize for her persistent wooing of India. Despite the fact that it is the turn of an Indian prime minister to visit Australia, she decided to forget the protocol and come to New Delhi anyway. Sensible, given that the last time an Indian prime minister went to Australia was an absurd quarter of a century ago.

New Delhi continues to hold a certain ambivalence about Australia, one that is starting to look a bit irrational.

There were reasons for this in the past. They do not exist any more.

The first reason for Indian disinterest goes back to the White Australia policy and a vague general sense that Australians are somehow more racist than other white English-speaking nations. The recent student attacks, which has been shown to be more about media and an immigration racket than anything else, have resurrected that taint again. But so do sledging controversies in cricket, Abo jokes and, until recently, the lack of a sizeable and noticeable Indian diaspora population.

The second reason was the bitter diplomatic battles over India’s nuclear programme. Australia’s extreme response to the Pokhran II nuclear tests, including supposedly arousing visiting Indian military officers and expelling them from the country, has not been completely forgotten in New Delhi. But Canberra has accepted its error in this, strongly supported an exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and, in any case, didn’t do anything that Canada — a country India is embracing later next month — didn’t do as well. And India laid down a test of penance for Australia which was a uranium sales agreement. And it was Gillard who pushed it through her Labour Party. It was symbolic since it is likely India may never buy Australian uranium, but it was necessary to overcome the sense that Australia couldn’t be serious about strategic partnership if it was willing to sell uranium to China but not India.

Which comes to the third and last remaining concern Indian strategists continue to have with Australia. And that is: what exactly is Canberra’s policy towards China. Oz officials are the first to admit that making a choice between their historical ally, the US, and their biggest economic partner, China, is one that they would prefer not to make. The prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, seen simplistically in New Delhi as a sinophobe, and the recent writings of Australian strategist Hugh White, seen in India as an advocate of Beijing appeasement, have only fed the sense that Canberra is wobbly on what is probably emerging as the primary geopolitical question in Asia.

India’s fears are exaggerated. I have heard Rudd, before he became prime minister, speak of how in a straight fight between China and the US the Australians would be alongside the Americans.

Read Wikileaks to get another bit of evidence of Rudd’s hard nosed view of China.

After blocking the return of Australia to the Quad naval exercises this year, again penance for Rudd’s decision to withdraw from them earlier, New Delhi has agreed to allow the Australians back in 2012. And rightly so, an Indian Ocean strategy that will have to compensate for the rapid dilution of US naval power in that area will be much more difficult without Australia. (We will ignore the fact that Australia’s submarines in Perth have largely lost their crews to the mining industry.) Failing to secure the sort of large scale defence relationship with Australia that India is contemplating with, say, Japan or the Southeast Asian nations sill only help the White school of Finlandization Down Under.

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