APLN member John McCarthy argues that New Delhi is guided by what it thinks is best for India, not by alliances or what others want of it. The original post may be found here.
Since our international engagement quickened after the World War II, Australia has habitually lionised big countries for a while – only for our enthusiasm to fade through lassitude or disappointment.
With some countries, such as India and Indonesia, there have been recurring peaks and troughs.
From the ’60s to the ’80s, largely for economic reasons, Japan was in focus. Then we thought others were more interesting. Japan’s economy flattened. We stopped learning Japanese and going to Tokyo. Only in recent years has a changing security environment revived our earlier ardour.
After a generation of hand wringing about Indonesia, Australia under prime minister Paul Keating embraced it with fervour. Then came the East Timor blow up. It took several years for normalcy to return to the relationship.
And we know what happened with China.
Over the past two decades, Australia has rightly recognised the rise of India. Its population of 1.4 billion exceeds China’s. It is the world’s third-biggest global economy in purchasing power parity terms, and it should soon be third in nominal terms.
We now have four offices on the ground in India. It is our biggest source of immigrants. It is our fourth-biggest export destination. Education links are burgeoning. All to the good.
That said, despite qualms about India’s refusal to take issue with Russia on Ukraine, there is a tendency in Australia and elsewhere in the West to see India’s strategic outlook as like ours. For one thing, persons wholly or partly of South Asian origin hold many leadership positions in the United States, in Britain and in Canada. In time, the same will be true in Australia.
But India does not share our world view.
In a recent article entitled “America’s Bad Bet on India” in Foreign Affairs, an American academic of Indian origin, Ashley Tellis, argued that New Delhi would never involve itself in any US confrontation with China that did not threaten its own security.
The Tellis piece had weight, as he was a main intellectual force behind the “Nuclear Deal” concluded in 2008 by which the Americans agreed to assist India’s civil nuclear development and to sell the deal internationally – despite the impediment that India was a nuclear weapons power, not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The deal was a turning point in the United States-India security relationship and boosted India’s growing status as a major power.
Tellis’ argument was supported by Edward Luce of the Financial Times, a bureau chief for that newspaper in New Delhi when the deal was being negotiated.
This argument is relevant to us.
With justification, India sees itself as a force in international affairs. It aspires to be a powerful pole in a multipolar world. It adheres to a doctrine of strategic autonomy. It is guided by what it thinks is best for India, not by alliances or what others want of it.
India is a member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which was a Chinese initiative.
Never a proponent of the Western-inspired liberal international order, India is a leader of the disparate but re-energised Global South – effectively the developing world.
As the Ukraine war has progressed, India has put distance between itself and Russia. But it still declines to impose sanctions on that country.
India’s China-driven strategic congruence with the United States is not the same as a quasi-alliance relationship. It does not operate within a framework of mutual obligation. It does not expect others to come to its aid, and it will not join someone else’s war.
It follows that India will not side militarily with the United States against China over Taiwan (although it might be helpful through use of its territory for transit of personnel and materiel).
It also follows that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) will always have inherent limitations, even as it serves as a soft regional buttress against China, because India’s relationship with the US is qualitatively different to that of Japan and Australia.
Moreover, Narendra Modi’s India does not lend itself to identification with democratic principle, which remains – at least nominally – a driver of American, and less avidly, Australian, strategic affinity.
Elections in India are generally fair and Modi’s sway is vigorously contested by the main opposition party, Congress, and by regional parties.
However, Modi remains a Hindu supremacist whose political machine largely disregards the aspirations of Muslims and other minorities. It reacts vengefully to criticism. To some, India is an illiberal democracy, to others an electoral autocracy. But, for sure, it is not a liberal democracy.
Our interests dictate that we put grunt into our dealings with India with energy and patience. But we must have realistic expectations and deal with it as it is, not as we might like it to be.
If we can do so, we will have a better prospect of avoiding the mutual disappointment which has characterised some of our relationships in the past.
Image: US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Quad meeting in Japan over the weekend. Christopher Jue