- Apr 5, 2009
Sums up nicely about what I (and may be most Indians might) think of Australia. Certainly, India-Australia relationships were never great if not good and the author nicely puts the reasons behind such dreary relationship. Hope future leaders of both countries will bridge the gap.
Australia is handling India badly
By Graham Cooke
Posted Monday, 10 August 2009
India received two high-ranking visitors from overseas recently. Both were from Western nations, both were seeking to improve relations with the South Asian giant. There the similarity ends.
For United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it was a triumphal progress. She secured a multi-billion dollar deal to build two nuclear reactors that will provide jobs in both countries and exports of nuclear material for years to come. India agreed to purchase sophisticated weaponry under specific safeguards. There were also promises of joint co-operation to reduce climate change. Details were discussed for a State visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington.
A few days earlier Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, had slipped into New Delhi on a very different mission - to try and shore up relations and deliver reassurances in the wake of widely reported attacks on Indian students in Australia and the protests that followed.
While Clinton was hailing a “deepening strategic partnership” and “greater defence co-operation”, statements which had American companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric and Westinghouse virtually salivating at what this will mean to their balance sheets, Evans was in damage control, hoping that India’s leadership will not be taking too much notice of the lurid headlines and calls for reprisals that have been appearing in their country’s more sensationalist media.
Even given the fact that the US is bound to carry more clout in New Delhi than any other international visitor, the contrast between the two visits was spectacular and in many ways highlights the difficulties that have plagued the Australia-India relationships since Indian independence in 1947. Historian and India expert Dr Auriol Weigold of the University of Canberra says the problem can be traced back to a “toxic” relationship between Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Indian counterpart, Jawaharial Nehru.
“Menzies was devoted to the British Empire, Nehru had taken India out of the empire and for that and for a multiplicity of other reasons, they could not get on,” she says. “While Menzies was around there was a virtually complete neglect of India as a possible partner of any sort.
“India still takes every opportunity to beat us over the head with the White Australia policy, which was a feature of the Menzies era.”
There have been attempts to repair that initial damage. In a recent Asialink essay, the Asia Pacific Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, Hamish McDonald, points out that Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was conscious that his government’s overtures to China in the early 1970s should be balanced by a strengthening of ties with India. McDonald says that after the departure of Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser visited India three times while Bob Hawke enjoyed good relations with his Indian counterpart, Rajiv Gandhi.
Yet incredibly, the visit of Gandhi during the Hawke era 23 years ago was the last by an Indian Prime Minister. Paul Keating’s international focus was mainly on Indonesia and South-East Asia generally, while under John Howard, the emphasis was solidly on China and the United States. Australia’s flip-flopping over India’s nuclear weapons program - Prime Minister Howard initially condemned it, then agreed to uranium sales, only for that policy to be overturned by the newly elected Labor Government in 2008 - has also stoked the perception of Australia as an unreliable partner.
Australian Kimberley Layton, a South Asia analyst based in New Delhi, says the uranium question remains a sore point, especially after the deal with the United States.
“My impression is that Indians believe Australia does have an interest in developing a bilateral relationship, but they are handling it badly,” she says.
McDonald says that Indian patience will eventually run out if the Rudd Government remains caught in a policy dilemma of its own making on nuclear issues, describing Labor’s support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty as “anachronistic” following American acceptance of India’s weapons status.
“The Labor policy can only grow as an obstacle to closer relations as India brings more nuclear power plants on line in coming years,” he says.
Layton believes the overall situation is not yet irretrievable, with the incidents involving attacks on Indian students being met with a grain of salt by more sophisticated Indians.
“The refrain I have heard is ‘well, do you see how we Indians treat our people in our own country’?” she says.
“The Indian media is typically prone to hyperventilation and they haven’t let themselves down on this issue. There are frequently reports of violence against Indian students in Australia in what I would consider to be the more tabloidesque papers, but educated Indians realise that their media over-dramatises things at the best of times.”
Assistant Professor Happymon Jacob of the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, says that Indian academia has been responsible in not coming out with knee-jerk reactions to events in Australia.
“They do not see it in terms of racism or anything like that, but mere crimes that need to be checked.” he says.
Layton does not believe that there need not be long-term damage to Australia’s trade interests or the overall relationship with the Indian Government.
“This is more an issue about perceptions, and about how Australia as a country appears to Indians,” she says. “The effort our government has put in to mitigate the fallout from this has been well received.”
Now, however, Indians are confronted by a Mandarin-speaking Australian Prime Minister who appears to be putting an awful lot of eggs in the China basket. One Indian official in Canberra, who did not wish to be named, said Indians are watching the situation over the arrest of Australian mining executive Stern Hu in China with interest.
“Some people see this as a litmus test of just how much Australia is willing to let itself be pushed around in order to preserve its trading relationship with China,” he says.
Layton says there is a much more balanced view of China in India, especially among the younger generation for whom the 1962 war between the two is part of ancient history. “They understand that co-operation with China is mutually beneficial and there is a highly negative cost to any antagonistic relationship with the country,” she says.
“Even so, there is an overarching view that Australia will make concession to China that it would never make to India.”
Weigold says India has every reason to treat Australia with suspicion. “From our reaction to their nuclear program, to selling Mirage jets to Pakistan, now the problem with students, it just goes on and on,” she says.
“It seems to me that India is in a position where we need it more than it needs us, and as long as we stick with the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and don’t sell it uranium, India is probably quite rightly, going to keep us at arms’ length.
“It’s just another example of the parlous state of our current relationship.”
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times. He believes an interest in world affairs grew out of his early years playing soccer - “the truly international game”.