The Strategic Illusion of India

By John McCarthy AO, Former Australian Diplomat

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to visit Australia this week, John McCarthy writes Canberra should put grunt into the bilateral relationship – but in doing so maintain  patience and realistic expectations over what can be achieved from closer ties.

Since our international engagement quickened after the Second World War, Australia has habitually lionized 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 sixties to the eighties, 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 handwringing about Indonesia, Australia under Prime Minister 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.

Given this history, we should be cautious about what we expect from India.

Over the past two decades Australia has rightly recognized the rise of India. Its population at 1.4 billion exceeds China’s. It is the world’s third biggest economy in purchasing power parity terms and it should soon be third in nominal terms.

We now have four diplomatic 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 India origin Ashley Tellis argued that New Delhi will 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 that was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The deal was a turning point in the US-India security relationship and boosted India’s growing status as a major power.

Tellis’s 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 Cooperation 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 US 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 US 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, Mr 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 Mr 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 combine the grunt and energy we put into our dealings with India with patience. But we must have realistic expectations and deal with 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 with big partners in the past.

John McCarthy is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne and senior advisor to Asialink. He was High Commissioner to India from 2004 to 2009 and ambassador to numerous other countries.