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Under China’s Shadow, India Looks to Australia

Australia and India are large democracies and former colonies of Britain, but the Cold War interfered with a close relationship for much of the 20th century as India drifted closer to the Soviet Union. Now, as China expands influence and the US pivots to Asia, India may be warming to the concept of an Indo-Pacific region – sharing strategy with neighbor Australia on matters of trade, security and foreign policy. Journalist Ashok Malik participated in the Australia-India Roundtable, sponsored by the two governments and three think tanks, in New Delhi. Bilateral trade, including food and energy, has grown considerably between the two, Australia has a small Indian diaspora, and Australia and some ASEAN members have pushed for a more Indian activity throughout the region particularly “naval cooperation and reshaping the political geography of the Indo-Pacific.” In 2014, both countries will commemorate the centenary of the intrusion into the Indian Ocean by the German cruiser Emden during World War I, eventually attacked and wrecked by an Australian naval ship. With strategizing underway, both governments can be expected to search in many directions for mutual benefits. – YaleGlobal

Under China’s Shadow, India Looks to Australia

India and Australia strategize on trade, energy and naval security
Ashok Malik
YaleGlobal, 8 February 2013
Post-colonial mates: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October 2012 (top); arms across the ocean, India-Australia joint exercise

NEW DELHI: For the past few years, as China’s emergence has cast an increasing shadow over the region, Canberra’s strategic thinkers have tried to interest New Delhi in the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” as the two former colonies of Britain, now two leading democracies, find common ground.

Those strategists in Australia, the shores of which are washed by both Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, may have cheered as the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit, marking 20 years of “dialogue partnership” between the South Asian country and the Southeast Asian bloc, opened on 20 December in New Delhi. Addressing guests, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was expansive in ambition and geographic reach: “Our future is inter-linked and a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region is crucial for our own progress and prosperity. There is, therefore, mutual benefit in these aspects of our engagement.”

Contrasting enthusiasm for the Indo-Pacific as a cornerstone of strategic architecture – even occasional differences of opinion as to its physical boundaries – has been apparent in Australia and India. This formed a backdrop to deliberations in December at the Australia-India Roundtable – semi-official dialogue supported by both governments and facilitated by three think-tanks, the Lowy Institute in Sydney, the Australia-India Institute in Melbourne and the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

The Australians returned from the Roundtable in New Delhi with little clarity as to where India stood in terms of the Indo-Pacific and naval synergy in the region. The Indian Navy is undergoing the most rapid expansion in history and has ordered more than 40 ships, to be delivered over the next five years. Senior naval officers have spoken of augmenting fleet strength by another 80 ships as and when money is available.

Traditionally, India emphasized a natural role in the Indian
Ocean, shying away
from committing to
the Pacific.

The key question is where will these ships be used? The traditional Indian position has been to emphasize a natural role in the Indian Ocean. Despite occasionally ambiguous statements, military and political spokespersons in India have shied away from committing to the Pacific. Even as China has made forays into the Indian Ocean, India has been wary of acknowledging that it considers the South China Sea within its legitimate domain, despite investment in offshore oil exploration in Vietnamese blocks by India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

On their part, Australia and sections of ASEAN have pushed for a more visible Indian footprint. In formally using the portmanteau “Indo-Pacific,” Singh may just have expanded the frontiers of Indian grand strategy, thereby sending the Australian Roundtable delegates a delayed message.

As flanking democracies in the eastern Indian Ocean, India and Australia have a history of false starts. Together as part of the Allied war mission in Gallipoli during World War I and comrades in World War II, the two drifted apart during the Cold War, with little but the game of cricket to unite them. In the 1990s, a fledging naval cooperation was discussed, but didn’t reach maturity.

When India tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998, the Australian reaction was among the strongest. As the United States and other powers – which had also criticized the Indian nuclear test – gradually mended fences, New Delhi showed no urgency in mending fences with Canberra. The following decade of tetchiness seemed to die only in 2011 when driven by strategic as well as commercial considerations, Prime Minister Julia Gillard ended the moratorium on selling uranium to India although the latter was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Of course, actually signing a safeguards agreement and concluding commercial deals remain, at best, a medium-term prospect.

Even beyond supplying uranium, Australia is gradually emerging as a key to Indian energy security.

While Gillard made a successful visit to India last October – inaugurating Oz Fest, the most impressive exposition of Australian soft power in India – no Indian prime minister has visited Australia since Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. There’s some hope in diplomatic circles that the Indian prime minister’s trip to Brisbane for the November 2014 G20 summit may be converted into a bilateral meeting, possibly opening the way for a nuclear commerce agreement as well as the proposed Free Trade Agreement

Even beyond supplying uranium, Australia is gradually emerging as a key to Indian energy security: 40 percent of coal imported by India in 2011 was from Australia. Several Indian power companies – Tata Power, GVK, Adani Power, among others – have invested in Australian coal mining interests. Starting in 2014, India’s Petronet LNG is scheduled to extract 1.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas from the Gorgon Project in Western Australia over 20 years.

In addition, there’s tentative discussion about a deeper agricultural relationship that may answer some of India’s food security concerns. Consumption of cereals, pulses – a source of protein for many Indians, including hundreds of millions of vegetarians – and a dramatic expansion in consumption of dairy products consumption have sent India’s food inflation soaring in recent years. Chickpeas comprise the leading Australian agricultural export to India after wool, amounting to US$88 million in 2008-09.

Bilateral trade has grown appreciably, from US$4.6 billion in 2003-04 to a peak of  $22.4 billion in 2009-10 before declining as the impact of the global economic crisis set in. Nevertheless India is now Australia’s fourth largest export market, though still well behind China. While 5 percent of Australian exports go to India, the 2011-12 figure for China is 29 percent.

The potential for naval cooperation and reshaping Indo-Pacific political geography excites proponents.

As one Australian Roundtable delegate emphasized, the December dialogue was the first significant meeting of Australian and Indian strategic thinkers in years, even decades, without an external shadow intruding. As recently as 2009, random acts of violence against Indian students in Melbourne seemed to acquire a racist interpretation and became a diplomatic incident. Yet, in July, it was announced that India had displaced China as the largest source of permanent migration to Australia, with 29,018 migrants, 15.7 percent of all migrants in 2011-12. The migrants are largely low-skilled workers and their families, though Australian authorities are increasingly targeting highly-educated Indian professionals, who already form a small but wealthy cohort in the country.

More than the growth of the Indian diaspora in Australia or two-way commerce, the potential for naval cooperation and reshaping the political geography of the Indo-Pacific excites the relationship’s strategic proponents. As was anecdotally pointed out at the New Delhi Roundtable, in 2014 both countries will commemorate the centenary of the intrusion into the Indian Ocean by the German cruiser Emden. The Kaiser’s World War I raider attacked Chennai, then Madras, in southern India in September 1914, before moving east towards Sri Lanka and, in today’s terminology, ASEAN waters. Two months later, in November 1914, the Emden was challenged and wrecked by an Australian naval ship, the Sydney, off the Cocos Islands.

The intelligence cooperation that led to the Emden’s destruction drew from British India’s military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Today, this is the home of India’s only tri-services command and central to its naval-capacity upgrade. As for the Cocos Islands, there’s a proposal – admittedly loose and long-term – to build facilities in this Australian territory and allow use by the United States.

The Kaiser’s Germany is no longer a challenge or even a conundrum in the Indo-Pacific, if it ever was one in the first place. Even so, as other powers, challenges and conundrums emerge in the early 21st century, India and Australia just may invoke the spirit of the effort that sunk the Emden.


Ashok Malik is a senior journalist based in New Delhi and writing on the intersection of India’s domestic politics and foreign policy. He participated in the Australia-India Roundtable of December 2012 as a representative of the Indian side.
Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

13 February 2013
well if we want to counter the second world countries for their upcoming dominance in geo- political and economic term , it would be very important for first world countries and leading third world countries to go together in terms of geo- political , economic cooperation and most importantly foreign policy terms. precisely because democratic values are sole nature of human kind this could strengthen international brotherhood. that ,perhaps, would be the base for fight for environmental crisis and humanitarian crisis as well . most impotently spirit of sustainable development can be led by tow hands not only FTA and other globalised tools.
-sanjay sharan , Delhi
9 February 2013
Yes. There is great scope for Co-operation between India and Australia. India is having the second largest population in the world and Australia large in area with small population compared to India.
Ever since India’s relations with the US started improving under the administration of then President George Bush ( 2000-08), it has had a beneficial fall-out for Indo-Australian relations too with increased military-to-military contacts and exercises, particularly greater co-operation between the two Navies and greater intellectual exchanges with a strategic focus. Australia’s diplomatic and consular presence in India has expanded, more Indian students have been going to Australia for higher education and more Indian academics are being invited to Australia on short or long-term fellowships. However, the academic exchanges have largely remained one way from India to Australia and not the other way round.
An important field that has remained untapped is the modernisation of our agriculture. For some time now, our Prime Minister has been talking of the need for a second green revolution to further improve our wheat production. There is a tremendous scope for Indo-Australian co-operation for modernising the cultivation of fruits and vegetables through the establishment of Special Agricultural Zones.
The poor infrastructure and other facilities in Indian universities have come in the way of the exchanges being two-way. Surprisingly, even in the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology and Business Administration Schools, Australian presence has been an exception. The fascination in Indian academic circles for exchanges with institutions of higher learning in Europe and the USA have come in the way of an increase in exchanges with Australia. There is a need for a more comprehensive thinking on the scope for multi-dimensional co-operation between India and Australia.
“Asserting that bilateral relations between India and Australia has shown steady progress over time with consolidation of its strategic partnership through expansion and deepening of cooperation in various sectors, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid on Monday said both nations will continue to build upon these and also in new areas of cooperation.
At the joint media interaction with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr here, Khurshid said: "I have just had a very useful round of discussions with Senator Bob Carr, Foreign Minister of Australia. We held the 8th round of the Framework Dialogue between our two countries. The dialogue is an integral component of the strategic partnership between our countries, which was agreed by our Prime Ministers in 2009."
"We have reviewed the entire range of our bilateral relations as well as regional and global issues. We are pleased that our strategic partnership has grown in strength and has expanded in scope. We also recognised that there are tremendous opportunities for much greater cooperation and that we shall strive to attain them," he said.
"Our relations are based on shared interests and mutual benefit in political and security areas, our expanding economic and trade ties, our cooperation in the energy and resources sectors, collaboration in science and technology and research, and our growing people-to-people links," he added.
Stating that state visit of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to India last year was a landmark in our strategic partnership, Khurshid said: "Senator Carr and I reviewed the progress in the implementation of the decisions reached. We are satisfied with the scope and extent of progress made in various areas. We have strengthened our collaborative endeavours in several sectors and have opened up new areas of cooperation."
"We highly value our cooperation in the science and technology field; our scientists have been working together on research projects that address the needs of the people as well as in the frontier areas of science," he said.
"We are pleased with our cooperation in the education sector, which has been expanded by the inclusion of specific programmes on vocational skills and the establishment of such centres in India and has also been given a stronger structure through close cooperation between the governments in addressing the needs of the student community, both in terms of curriculum quality as well as safety issues," he added.
On regional and global issues, Khurshid said: "We have strengthened our cooperation and consultation. We recognised the importance of regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. IOR-ARC, which has acquired new momentum during our chairmanship will continue the positive movement, as Australia assumes the Chair for the next two years.”( Bilateral relations between India, Australia has shown steady progress: Khurshid,ZEE NEWS.COM Monday, January 21, 2013).
Long live Indo - Australian Co-operation.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
-Anumakonda , Nellore(AP),India
8 February 2013
If one were to whine over and over again " racism " etc. nothing will be achieved. It is time to move on and build Indo- Austraylian friendship. Indians can learn about lot of things from Austraylian.
-Kamath , Canada
8 February 2013
The title should have been other way round. Under China's shadow, Australia looks to India.
-Dave Kautilya , Palo Alto, Ca