India and Australia: Towards a Strong Strategic Partnership


Richard Broinowski analyses the bilateral strategic partnership brokered by Kevin Rudd and Dr Manmohan Singh in New Delhi in November 2009, and carried forward by Prime Minister Tony Abbott during his visit to New Delhi at the beginning of September 2014

A persistent assertion by the Australian uranium industry over the last few years has been that opportunities to develop potentially enormous commercial and strategic relations with India were being frustrated by Australia’s refusal to sell it uranium. The issue was a touchy one. In May 1977, then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had imposed stringent conditions on uranium exports: it could only be sold to signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and must never be used in nuclear weapons programmes. As a country that had refused to sign the NPT and had developed a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, India was not seen as an acceptable customer.

The atmosphere in Canberra changed when President George W Bush brokered an understanding on nuclear matters with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in 2005. Requiring acceptance by the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, as well as the US Congress, the understanding translated into a formal treaty only in 2008.

As in most foreign policy issues, Canberra was strongly influenced by Washington’s initiative. In 2007, conservative Prime Minister John Howard overturned the Australian uranium export ban to India. It was re-instated by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd after the 2007 election, but at an emotional Labor national conference in Sydney in December 2011, it was overturned once more by his successor, Julia Gillard.

This left the stage free for Tony Abbott, elected as Australia’s next conservative Prime Minister in 2013, to sign an agreement to sell uranium to fuel India’s civil nuclear programme when he visited New Delhi at the beginning of September 2014. How this will play out in commercial terms remains to be seen in a severely depressed, post-Fukushima, international nuclear industry. Whether it will increase proliferation risks in the Indian sub-continent is a question without an easy answer at this stage. Those opposed to exports say that even if India abides by its undertaking to Australia not to divert Australian uranium to its weapons programme, the agreement will free up other sources of uranium available to India to do so. Others say India already has ample weapons grade uranium of its own.

Uranium Sale: Only Symbolic

I tend to believe that India will expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons whether or not Australian uranium enters its fuel cycle. But on the commercial front, at least, uranium has always been exaggerated as a factor in Indian-Australian relations. Particularly as an item of trade, it is overblown – according to the World Nuclear Association, India’s uranium demand in 2014 will amount to just 913 tonnes, or 1.4 percent of world demand. If Australia supplies 20 percent of this demand, our uranium export revenue will increase by three percent. This is a flea bite in annual two-way Indian-Australian commodity trade of around A$20 billion.

Indian officials have asserted that Australian approval to sell India uranium has symbolic value, a sign of trust between our two nations. Perhaps so, but history shows that the relationship developed momentum and trust long before the post-war development of Australian uranium mines.

Vibrant History

A commonly overlooked fact is that Indian and Australian troops were allies in the fight against Turkey at Gallipoli during Winston Churchill’s ill-fated campaign to force the Dardanelles in 1915. The 29th Indian Brigade, 7th Mountain Artillery and the India Mule Corps shared the misery of that campaign with the ANZACs.

Another forgotten fact is that diplomatic ties between India and Australia preceded India’s independence from Britain. Presumably with the blessings of Whitehall, India established a trade office in Sydney in 1941, Australia appointed a High Commissioner in New Delhi in 1944, and India its own High Commission in Canberra in 1945.

During the Cold War, bilateral relations were distant as Canberra perceived India as too closely aligned to Soviet Russia, and New Delhi saw Australia as too closely aligned to the US. Menzies and Nehru were suspicious of each other and did not enjoy cordial relations.

In Australia’s post-war sub-conscience however, was the perception of India as a burgeoning country with a vast population and a fascinatingly rich and varied cultural endowment. In 1962, as a young man of 22, I myself caught the fascination as I back-packed third class on coal-belching Indian steam trains, staying with hospitable Indian families in Bombay, Baroda, Patiala, New Delhi, Chandigarh and Amritsar. Whilst day-dreaming on a houseboat called the Hero of the Day on the Dal Lake in Srinagar, I imagined I could hear the dull reverberations of artillery exchanges between Indian and Chinese forces in the Aksai Chin during the Chinese incursion.

New Strategic Depth

Australians have always had an affinity with India over cricket and as partners in the Commonwealth. But as the Cold War waned, we began to see the sub-continent from a new strategic perspective. Of special interest with the advent of New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy, a package of reforms that moved away from a policy of self-reliance to closer ties with the emerging economies of East Asia. Here was a strategic adjustment that Australians could relate to, and here too, were emerging possibilities of new commercial activities and cooperation. Almost without conscious volition, the relationship began to take on new depths. Regular official visits occurred, more from Australia to India than the reverse, and most under the radar of popular attention. Many of India’s present leaders visited Australia either as travellers or students. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself visited twice, in 2001 and 2004.

Beginning in the 1990s, bilateral treaties and MoUs were negotiated in many areas; among them air services, civil use of space, customs, intellectual property, and student welfare, wool trade, water management, minerals and energy. During Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to New Delhi in 2009, he and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh categorised the relationship as a Strategic Partnership. Rudd expanded Australia’s diplomatic presence in New Delhi and Mumbai, established a consulate in Chennai, and expanded Austrade’s offices across regional India.

Increasing numbers of Australian ministers and senior officials made working visits to New Delhi. Regular ministerial and official meetings became commonplace on regional strategic issues, trade, agriculture, education and energy. Bilateral trade now stands at around A$20 billion. Main Australian exports are coal, gold, copper ores and concentrates, other minerals, and education (there are 36,000 Indian students in Australia, the second largest contingent of foreign students after China). Indian exports to Australia include personal travel services, pharmaceuticals, motor cars, pearls and gems. This is a good start, but the surface of potential for trade and investment has barely been scratched.

India and Australia are both engaged in regional cooperation – as dialogue partners with ASEAN, and as members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which is concerned with disaster management, maritime safety and security, trade and investment, fisheries, tourism and cultural exchange, scientific and technical cooperation.

But how important is the bilateral strategic partnership brokered by Kevin Rudd and Dr. Manmohan Singh in New Delhi in November 2009? Do the two countries share sufficient strategic concerns for genuine military cooperation? Participation in war games is one thing, particularly maritime ones, and these could be expected to continue and expand. The navies of both countries are fond of arranging them.

Differing Perceptions

Both countries have concerns about an emerging China, although the origins of such concerns are very different. India’s are more immediate – China and India have a history of conflict over contested borders, Australia and China do not. Nor has India ever shared Australia’s tendency to get involved in regional conflicts initiated by the US, such as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the current urge to do battle with ISIL and other so-called Muslin terrorist groups at present dismembering Iraq and Syria. In the latter case, Canberra declares Muslim extremism as an existential problem which threatens Australia. Whatever the government in New Delhi thinks in private, it has, to my knowledge, made no such public declarations.

During a recent visit to Tokyo, Prime Minister Abbott declared to his host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that

Australia had no better friend in Asia than Japan. His remark was reported not to have gone down well in Beijing, which is becoming more and more sensitive towards what it suspects, with reason, is a growing US-Japan-Australia alliance to contain China.

I would be surprised if the Indian government would give much support or sympathy either to Abbott’s declaration or to be part of a triple alliance against China. Against the odds, India is trying to develop friendly and pragmatic relations with its vast northern neighbour.

India’s perceptions about Japan also differ from Australia’s. The two countries were held apart through the latter part of the 20th century by Cold War perceptions. Only recently have relations warmed, even to the extent that during a recent visit to Tokyo, Narendra Modi declared that India now had a special strategic relationship with Japan. It remains to be seen whether this signifies more than just words, but I, for one, would be very surprised if it translated into some kind of alliance against China.

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Richard Broinowski

Richard Broinowski was Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam (1983-85), Republic of Korea (1987-89), and to Mexico, the Central American Republics and Cuba (1994-97). He is currently an Adjunct Professor in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, and Vice President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in New South Wales.

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