The recent visit of Malcolm Turnbull to India generated much hype and enthusiasm. Despite this, India-Australia relations have had a very difficult history. After Indian independence, the two states found themselves divided over the ends of empire, and then by the Cold War. Now, a dynamic has emerged in which Australia periodically becomes very excited about India, but quits at the first sign of difficulty.
This is ultimately because Australia has high hopes for the relationship, but has long lacked a serious understanding of, and empathy for, India’s challenges and its perspective on world affairs. As a result, efforts to build the India-Australia relationship have been stilted, and successive Australian leaders have embraced selective visions of India.
When Anglophile Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister of Australia, visited India in 2014, he only praised what was British about India. On his recent trip, the business-minded Malcolm Turnbull praised primarily India’s economic dynamism and business potential. The strategy of Abbott failed to substantially deepen the partnership, and it is unclear whether Turnbull’s will either.
Immediately after his return to Australia, Turnbull announced the ending of 457 visas (which many Indians use to come to Australia) and tighter citizenship requirements. This was widely reported in India (here, here and here, for example) as very bad news.
Although defence and counter-terrorism cooperation have reached new heights, and Australia has finally become willing to sell uranium to India, the economic relationship remains stagnant. As the furore over attacks against Indian students in Australia in 2008-9 showed, the Indian media is quick to refer to ‘white Australia’, just as the Australian media is to accuse Indians of hypersensitivity and emotionalism. One thing India has consistently wanted from Australia since independence is a better deal for its citizens on visas and entry to Australia. This is what makes Turnbull’s announcements upon his return so disheartening.
Further issues remain troublesome. Despite the excessive fanfare around a ‘natural partnership’ and a relationship ‘poised for take-off’, India and Australia do not view world politics the same way. Australia sees a US-led hierarchy over Asia as the key to security. India seeks a ‘polycentric world order’. Lazy assumptions that ‘shared democracy’ and ‘shared values’ underpin the relationship, and that it will therefore grow inevitably, do not capture this dynamic.
The key to the India-Australia relationship is not so much trade or a limited strategic convergence, but a deeper and more sustained mutual understanding.
Abbott’s fascination with India was underpinned by a colonial romanticism. He loved what was British about India: its Westminster political system, cricket, its use of the English language. This animated his belief that India and Australia shared a ‘natural affinity’.
This was always flawed. On his visit to the Australian parliament in 2014, Modi praised an Indian ‘freedom fighter’ in its ‘first war of independence’, emphasising violent elements of India’s freedom struggle. Just minutes before, Abbott had praised India’s independence movement for never fighting its colonizers.
India’s Britishness drove Abbott’s desire to engage, but his perception did not match India’s reality. The free trade agreement is an example. Abbott aimed to complete an agreement within a year. As part of any deal, the Indians wanted visa concessions, which would allow Indian students to stay in Australia for several years after completing their studies. The Australians refused. The deal stalled.
So, can Turnbull’s emphasis of India’s economic dynamism break the cycle?
Before arriving, Turnbull lowered expectations for a free trade agreement and slowed the negotiations. This was treated in the press as bad news. – but it was sensible.
In describing India, Turnbull relied on its dynamism, its ‘vibrancy’, its ‘potential’, its youth and its multiculturalism. Economic and ‘knowledge’ partnerships were two key elements of his approach. He brought with him education minister Simon Birmingham and a small flotilla of University Vice-Chancellors. The emphasis on education has strong potential to help India in the short-to-medium term. The emphasis on skills and knowledge sharing though is surely undermined by the recent visa changes.
But can a business-friendly approach emphasizing dynamism help long-term? As La Trobe University’s Asian affairs analyst Professor Nick Bisley pointed out, there is only so much the Australian state can do to push stronger business links with India. Australian businesses have long found India to be a very difficult market, due to corruption, red tape and Indian protectionism.
Turnbull’s approach is restrained by domestic politics. Bizarrely, Turnbull declared that, ‘[the] formal relationship [between Australia and India] began for many Australians in 1950, when [Australia’s long-serving Anglophile Prime Minister] Robert Menzies became the first Australian leader to visit independent India’.
Yet, in reality India-Australia relations began in 1946, with an exchange of high commissioners in the build up to independence. Menzies was a disaster for India-Australia relations. On the trip in question, Australia’s high commissioner to India, Walter Crocker, noted that Menzies seemed utterly uninterested in India.
This can only have been included for Turnbull’s Liberal party back home, for whom Menzies is a hero and Turnbull is divisive. If Turnbull is defeated, either electorally or by his own party, in the next few years, Australia’s approach to engaging India would likely reset once again. This language, combined with the visa changes, suggests that resistance from within his own party has prevent Turnbull’s trip from breaking the cycle of boom and bust in India-Australia relations.
Both Abbott and Turnbull’s understandings of India generated some excitement around the relationship. Their embrace of Modi, regardless of what animates it, goes down very well in India. But what happens when India dashes their expectations?
There were signs of a more sustained engagement on this visit, at least in comparison with Abbott’s approach. Such an understanding might well emerge from research Indian and Australian universities, greater cultural exchanges and allowing more Indians, students or otherwise, to settle Australia and create more people-to-people links. Genuine patience and empathy are required to break the cycle of over-excitement driven by unrealistic expectations, followed by under-performance and failure.
Dr Alex Davis is an Australia India Institute, New Generation Network Scholar based at La Trobe University. His current research project is titled 'Indian international thought in postcolonial and historical perspective'