India–Australia summit: A meeting of minds

With shared concerns over Chinese hegemony, the time is right for a closer engagement between New Delhi and Canberra, writes Amit Dasgupta for South Asia Monitor

Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) Jun 09, 2020

The recently concluded summit between India and Australia is rightly hailed as being historic and a landmark not because it was the first Virtual Summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in but because of the far-reaching implications of the agreements signed and the backdrop of the conversations between the two heads of the government. More importantly, what stood out was the unspoken word and yet, the subtle manner in which it dominated the conversation and was responded to.

Under attack that it had willfully deceived the global community about the spread and effect of the virus and triggered a pandemic of extraordinary proportions, Beijing feared the India-Australia Summit would become a platform for China-bashing.  Australia had already fired its first salvo when it called for an investigation into the origins of the virus and was unmoved by Chinese threats of irreparable damage to bilateral relations. Across the globe, from the US to Europe, China was losing face. The summit-level reference would have been a serious body blow. And so, it did what was expected: stir up border tensions with India, as a warning for further escalation, to distract New Delhi when it was preoccupied with the pandemic and its fallout.

Both India and Australia anticipated this and steered clear of direct references to China while remaining mindful of the nervous elephant in the room. This is, perhaps, one of the great achievements of the summit.

Indo-Pacific collaboration

The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), intensified collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region, the framework arrangement of cyber and cyber-enabled critical technology cooperation and enhanced security and defence dialogue reflects a shared vision, shared aspirations but, more importantly, shared concerns vis-à-vis Beijing.

It would be fair to say that there is global discomfort in the manner in which Beijing is pursuing its national agenda and ambitions.  The US President Donald Trump has already expressed his annoyance and announced a series of measures, including visa denial to certain categories of Chinese citizens, which would hurt immediate Chinese interests. Europe, in particular Germany, has been equally tough by demanding Beijing to pay Euro 140 billion as damages for the pandemic. What history will record is how Beijing has dealt with COVID-19 and how it will end up being its biggest public diplomacy failure. Brand China is severely damaged. Brand repair, as we all know, takes a very long time.

The summit between Prime Ministers Modi and Scott Morrison would stand out for the deft manner in which they negotiated the temptation to make this an overtly anti-China summit. To fail to do so would have plunged the global community into a deeper crisis, especially at a time when all attention and energy needs to be directed towards the pandemic and economic revival.

The summit has put together a template for the way forward. It bears recalling that a major transformation in the bilateral relationship occurred in 2014 when Prime Minister Modi visited Australia and reached out to the political leadership and the people by offering his hand of friendship. This required visionary imagination, especially when one recalls that his visit was the first in 30 years of an Indian prime minister to Australia.

Foreign policy is built on the ability to find new friends, revisit old relationships, and discover shared values. This is precisely what the 2014 visit achieved because Australia grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

A long road lies ahead. Summits are between leaders. The implementation is what matters. Both, within India and Australia, constituencies need to be built to, especially among business and industry, to reimagine what the relationship offers and to put aside the old mindsets that held us captive to the past. Defence and security collaboration is one side of the coin and needs to be matched by stronger trade and investment ties. With shared concerns over Chinese hegemony, the time is right for a closer engagement between New Delhi and Canberra.

New Delhi is acutely aware that Beijing considers India’s geographical proximity to its borders be a threat, as also New Delhi’s friendships with a host of countries that it perceives to be inimical to China’s interests. Militarily, India is no match for China, unless it seeks and receives outside support. This would, however, be opposed by domestic constituencies in India, which would term it a sell-out of sovereignty. 

India knows that, at present, all it has at its disposal to stave off Chinese aggression is diplomacy and it works only if concessions are made by India. At best, India would buy time until the next incursion. Land once occupied, is difficult to reclaim, as India learnt from territories occupied by Pakistan in Kashmir. For India, the options are limited. What it needs is to craft relationships that would enable it to rapidly develop its defence and security capabilities and also usher in a sustainable economic trajectory. Australia, like many others, that New Delhi has reached out to, can be valuable allies in this. 

Higher education collaboration

Higher education collaboration is yet another strong pillar in the bilateral relationship both in terms of research and teaching that requires consistent and focused support, especially with speculation that numbers of Chinese students to Australia and indeed, the world over, would decline. Space has been created for aspiring Indian students and it could provide the ideal platform to convert India’s demographics into a dividend. Indeed, collaboration with institutions of academic excellence in Australia would help create the much-needed research culture in Indian institutions.  

The world is dramatically changing and so must India’s foreign policy. Strategic shifts in the balance of power would further muddle the landscape. It is understandable that while some would welcome the rise of India, others would perceive it as a threat.  Foreign policy is the manner in which a nation straddles these opposites and negotiates its strategic national interests. The virtual summit did precisely that.  

(The writer is a former Indian diplomat and was Consul General in Sydney 2009-12. The views expressed are personal)