Pacific partners

India has convinced itself that despite the growing trade ties, Australia is gradually moving into China’s sphere of influence

As an institution the Indian Foreign Office is remarkably risk-averse and conservative. With honourable exceptions, it spends much of its time thinking up reasons and excuses to not take a particular step, not change direction, not go down a path that seems obvious to everybody else but the ministry of external affairs (MEA).
Given this context, the announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard that she backs the idea of selling uranium to India — a policy change she will attempt to push through at the Australian Labour Party conference a few weeks from now — represents a potential moment of truth for the MEA.

Of course, there is no guarantee Ms Gillard will have her way. The extreme Left of the Labour Party does not want Australia selling uranium to not just India but, frankly, anybody. That aside, Chinese influence in the Australian system may also come into play. The Chinese buy uranium from Australia but would be happy to delay a similar arrangement with India.
Nevertheless, the commitment to ending the uranium-export embargo on India is stronger now in the Australian polity than at any time in recent years. Ms Gillard’s change of mind represents this. New Delhi is deemed too important a partner — economic and, increasingly, strategic — for Canberra to risk relations with.
However, Ms Gillard’s decision will also place the Indian foreign policy establishment in a quandary. She is on the verge of depriving India of its all-purpose excuse for not tightening bonds with Australia. It is not as if India needs Australian uranium immediately — though it will certainly do so in the coming years, as its nuclear power programme gains traction. Yet, the fact that Australia wasn’t selling India yellowcake became a bone of contention, a symbol of the trust deficit and the one line Indian interlocutors could use at every available meeting.
Outside of cricket and the Commonwealth — both of which have zero strategic relevance — India-Australia engagement has been a history of mutual negligence. In the Cold War, the two found themselves on opposite sides. When it came to Fiji, there was some cooperation, especially during military coups aimed against the ethnic Indian community. India would make a lot of noise, and Australia — as the paramount power in Fiji’s neighbourhood — would actually inflict pressure on Suva to restore civil rights.
In the mid-1990s, as Indian foreign policy sought new, post-Cold War direction, there was talk of naval cooperation between the largest democracies in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. It died down with the Indian nuclear tests of 1998. In a supreme overreaction, Canberra censured India and even expelled Indian Army officers on a training mission in Australia. Then, about a year later, when the United States began to break the ice with India, Australia found itself isolated.
By the early 21st century, India had made up with the US and much of the West but the incentive to do so with Australia was just not there. Australia was not central to India’s strategic landscape. It was also seen as too much of an American ally to necessitate independent courtship, dismissed as Uncle Sam’s “deputy sheriff” in Asia-Pacific.
Another opportunity arose in the aftermath of the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. Along with the US and Japan, India and Australia comprised the “core group” of first responders. These were the four democracies in the region with the naval and humanitarian-action capacities to rush help. A few months later, a particularly go-getting Japanese Prime Minister urged this Quadrilateral be formalised into a larger alliance.
China was not happy with the proposal. The Quadrilateral (or “Quad”) was put on the back-burner when the government changed in Japan. To be fair, none of the other countries — not the US and Australia, with their economic dependency on China; not India, with its long and contested border with China — was over-keen on the Quad lest it anger Beijing.
Even so, it took the extraordinary clumsiness of an Australian foreign minister to sink the Quad. He wrote its obituary at a media briefing, with the Chinese foreign minister standing beside him! The MEA still hasn’t forgiven him, and neither has it forgotten the overreaction to Pokhran II.
While the institutional memory in South Block is commendable, is it serving any purpose? Since the Quad was consigned to oblivion — it exists only as an indulgence for strategic-affairs pundits and think tanks — India has convinced itself that despite the growing trade relationship, despite the deepening intelligence cooperation, despite the expanding Indian diaspora down under, Australia is gradually but inevitably moving into the Chinese sphere of influence.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and biggest buyer of commodities. India is far, far behind. Australia is a maritime nation and its security has been underwritten by American naval presence in the region. Today, Chinese naval prowess is more likely to be a factor on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean than an Indian one.
That aside, Chinese clout in Australian politics is growing. Two former Australian Prime Ministers now serve on the boards of or in advisory capacities in companies that do extensive business with China. Essentially, Beijing writes their cheques.
Even so, there is far from unanimity on the China relationship in Australia. Key stakeholders are worried about an uncontested ascendancy of the Communist superpower. They are determined to build a collective counterweight — not to go to war with China but to disincentive any adventurism.
Ms Gillard has taken two recent steps in this regard. The second is the uranium decision vis-a-vis India. The first, and more important, is the announcement by US President Barack Obama, while being hosted by Ms Gillard, that the US is augmenting its military presence in Australia’s Northern Territory — just below Timor-Leste and close to Indonesia. In five years, the US will have significantly greater naval facilities there.
The game for the Indo-Pacific — the geographical intersection and strategic confluence of the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans — is afoot. Where is India?

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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