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India and Australia Are Having a Moment – Thanks to China

The Quint speaks to Aus High Commissioner to India about how the relationship is finally drawing fresh breath.

Updated
World
3 min read

Video Editors: Mohd Irshad Alum & Vivek Gupta

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Australia doesn't often feature when Indians think about their foreign policy – we're more concerned with Pakistan, China, or the US. But Australia? The land down under only features when cricket season rolls around (and mostly as the villain of the piece).

There's one important reason that is rapidly changing, though: China.

The rise of China, coupled with uncertainty about the US' commitment to the Indo-Pacific since President Trump took the helm, has made regional players jittery. How is this affecting the India-Australia relationship? The Quint spoke to Harinder Sidhu, the Australian High Commissioner to India to get an idea of where it's headed.

What's New Here?

In the last decade or so, the Indian-origin population in Australia has grown to about 2% – that's a significant number, and Sidhu says Indians in Australia are becoming increasingly active in social and political life, leading to Australians turning their minds to India more.

But perhaps, the most consequential development is deepening regional concern over a sharp-elbowed China and a newly isolationist America. With the Doklam standoff lingering as a testament to China's territorial ambitions, and as more and more countries appear to fall to authoritarianism – the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia all come to mind – a closer relationship between Australia and India, two multicultural and open democracies, looks like an attractive proposition.

The reason we have such a close relationship is because our values are shared. [...] We know that political stability relies on open communication and engagement and dialogue.
Harinder Sidhu, Australian High Commissioner to India

In 2009, the two signed a Strategic Partnership agreement, and in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Australia in 26 years. In June 2017, the two held their second bilateral military exercise off the coast of Western Australia after the AUSINDEX exercises in the Bay of Bengal in 2015. Australia has participated as an observer to the Malabar Exercises between India, US and Japan, and 2016 saw Australian Special Forces train with India's elite troops, with army-to-army exercises expected in 2018.

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The trade relationship too has shifted into higher gear. A few weeks ago, Australia sent a large trade delegation for Australia Business Week, headed by its Trade Minister, and accompanied by three federal ministers, two state-level ministers, and 176 businesspeople from sectors like urban infrastructure, digital health, innovation, and higher education – a spread of industries unlike the usual ones Australia engages in with its trading partners, says Sidhu, and one geared towards "an economy of the future".

India and Australia are also allying in a trilateral with Japan. The three conduct Foreign Secretary-level meetings, the first of which was held in New Delhi in 2015, and the next of which is scheduled for later this year. "We find that we see the world in very similar ways," says Sidhu of the grouping.

An Opportunity Worth Taking

When the Chinese cordoned off the Yellow Sea to conduct military exercises, right around the anniversary of the PLA earlier this year, one might have expected some kind of US response in the wake of its 'pivot to Asia' policy.

But with no real response forthcoming, with China's rapid island-building in the South China Sea, and with its disregard for the rulings of The Hague's international tribunal on its territorial claims in the region, the need to hedge against the Chinese domination of these critical waters gains new urgency.

This is a time of opportunity, as power shifts and alliances need recalibrating.

These issues that arise [isolationism and authoritarianism globally] open opportunities for Australia and India to work together to shape the Indo-Pacific order, together with other countries.
Harinder Sidhu, Australian High Commissioner to India

It bears mentioning that China is Australia’s largest trading partner by a large margin (accounting for around 32% of its total exports), with major exports being coal, iron ore, and gold. India comes a distant fifth, at around 4% of total exports. Australia doesn’t even make the list of India’s 15 largest trading partners, while China is India’s fifth largest trade partner. Given this economic reality, there’s likely to be a limit to how close this relationship can get.

But with China's increasing belligerence, both on land and on water, the higher frequency and tenor of threat from North Korea, and a US that is inspiring less than total confidence in its commitment to the region, it pays for Australia and India to develop their friendship. Which is precisely what they're doing.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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