India-Australia Ties: China Scores Big but No Level-Playing Field With Ukraine

Even as Canberra would prefer Delhi to take a stand, Australian govt recognises India's neutrality on the crisis

5 min read
Hindi Female

This week Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is visiting India for the first time since he was elected in May 2022. This will be an opportunity for the two countries to further deepen their bilateral relationship, particularly in the economic and defence arenas.

The visit was appropriately kick-started with the Australian prime minister landing in Ahmedabad in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat to watch together the fourth and final cricket test match between the two countries.

Cricket diplomacy is always a safe way to start official visits between the two countries—cricket after all has been the common bond between the two nations for the last 75 years.

Australia PM's India Visit Pump Bilateral Ties

Prime Minister Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the first time at the Leaders’ Meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—the Quad—in Tokyo in May 2022.

The Quad launched in 2007, is a consultative grouping of four democracies in the Indo-Pacific—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. It’s an opportunity for the leaders to discuss issues of common interest, whether in trade, health, climate change, or defence. Albanese and Modi appeared to have developed a genuine personal rapport at their first meeting.

Modi’s signature welcoming bear hug of Albanese in Ahmadabad certainly confirms this.

This official three-day visit is the first one by an Australian prime minister since 2017. It is also the first one of the annual bilateral summits announced last year. Australia is only one of the four countries with which India has annual summits.

Bilateral relations between the two countries have deepened quite significantly in the recent years, particularly since China began to assert itself more forcefully diplomatically and militarily in recent times.

For example, the Strategic Partnership between Delhi and Canberra was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in June 2020. And last year the two countries signed a free-trade agreement called the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA). This agreement meant that there was an immediate lifting of duty on 96% of Indian exports to Australia and similarly on 85% of Australian exports to India.


Trade Ambitions As Top Agenda

One of the aims of the Australian prime minister who is accompanied by his Minister for Trade and Tourism Don Farrell, is to move forward with negotiations on the more ambitious Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement which has stalled recently.

It is important to note that bilateral trade between the two countries is around AUD 34 billion, significantly in Australia’s favour. Coal is Australia’s main export to India. These trade figures are a massive increase from 25 years ago when India’s exports to Australia were only AUD 458 million and AUD 1.4 billion in the other direction. There are suggestions that bilateral trade could go up to USD 50 billion within five years.

However, even with these improved figures, India only ranks fourth in export destinations and Australia is India’s 17th, taking less than 2% of its exports. Those figures are dwarfed by the bilateral trade figures between Australia and China which were in 2021-22 AUD 285 billion. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Albanese is keen to achieve greater diversity in its trade relations, not only in goods but also in investment and education.

The consequences of Australia’s deep reliance on Chinese goods were made very stark in the wake of the Covid pandemic. No Australian government would want to be in such a vulnerable situation again when the next pandemic descends upon us. Accordingly, a business delegation is accompanying the prime minister to help advance the bilateral economic and trade agenda which will include participating in an Australia-India CEO Forum.

Are India and Australia on the Same Page Regarding Ukraine Crisis?

However, while the visit should be a relatively smooth affair, it won’t be all plain sailing either. Turning to the foreign policy arena, Albanese will want to continue the conversation which the foreign ministers of the Quad—which included Australia’s Penny Wong and India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar—had in Delhi in the margin of the G20 meeting the previous week.

While the four Quad foreign ministers agreed that the Russian threat of using nuclear weapons was “inadmissible”, as with the Leaders’ Summit in Bali in November 2022, there was no consensus on Ukraine among the G20 foreign ministers. Accordingly, no final communiqué was issued. This is not surprising.

While Delhi and Canberra are on the same page in denouncing China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the South and East China seas, there are nevertheless fundamental differences between them on how to deal with the Ukraine crisis.

Certainly Canberra—as well as Washington and Tokyo—would prefer that Delhi take a position which criticises Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in forceful terms as it has publicly. But the Australian government also recognises the reasons why the Indian government has taken the ‘neutral’ stance it has on this issue.

And while Australian Foreign Minister Wong will have undoubtedly made the Australian government’s position clear in her private discussions with her Indian counterpart, she is too experienced of a politician to take a similar position publicly. This would simply play in the hands of critics back home.

Instead, she has stressed that “India is a critical power, great power in the region that there is no reshaping of the Indo-Pacific without India. We’ve seen that India is a civilisational power that brings a different perspective." We can expect the Australian prime minister to follow a similar approach during his official visit.


Pushback Against China— A Priority

Most certainly, Foreign Minister Wong will have made the Australian government’s position clear on other contentious issues such as Kashmir and Delhi’s heavy-handed approach to media outlets critical of the Modi government in her private discussions with Dr Jaishankar. But as with the handling of the Ukraine issue, the outcome of these discussions will remain private.

The bottom line is that Delhi’s and Canberra’s shared geostrategic interests in pushing back militarily and diplomatically on China’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region means that all other issues take a back seat—at least publicly.

So all in all, and unless there’s an unforeseen event, we can expect this official visit to go very well. This will be an excellent stepping stone to two other important meetings for later in the year which both prime ministers will be attending. First, the Quad leaders’ summit will be held in Sydney later this year.

This meeting will probably coincide with the four Quad navies scheduled to come together for the annual Malabar naval wargaming exercise in August which Australia will be hosting for the first time. Second, the G20 Summit will be held in Delhi in September. Needless to say, by the end of the year the two prime ministers will have brought Australia and India even closer together.

An Australian cricket win would be the icing on this diplomatic cake.

(Dr Claude Rakisits is an Honorary Associate Professor in international relations at the Australian National University in Canberra and a Visiting Fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy. He tweets @ClaudeRakisits. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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