The importance of India: restoring sight to Australia’s strategic blind spot

John Lee
05 November 2009 | FPA2
The importance of India: restoring sight to Australia’s strategic blind spot

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has invited leading politicians and opinion makers in the region to a conference in early December in Sydney to discuss his vision of an Asia-Pacific Community and building inclusive institutions to discuss the full spectrum of security matters in the region. Besides wanting to ensure that Australia remains relevant rather than sidelined in any future setup, the main impetus behind Canberra’s push for top-down security architecture is to take a proactive approach in order to manage China’s rise and build institutions that can help ease current and future tensions.

When Canberra looks northwards to Asia, it mainly sees China’s presence and ignores the other rising giant of the region: India. In important respects, India’s economic and strategic prospects appear more favourable than China’s. Even if we accept that the continued and rapid rise of China will be the most significant driver of change and potential instability in Asia, India’s role and its strategic weight in helping to ‘structurally’ constrain and manage a potentially disruptive China is poorly appreciated in Canberra.

The paper traces the rise of ‘strategic India’ in Asia, the significance of the remarkable improvement in the US-India relationship, and the rapid progress made in bringing India into the existing regional security order. India is becoming an increasingly important stakeholder in, and contributor to, the existing regional security order. The paper concludes that despite the abundance of strategic and diplomatic activity in the region reflecting New Delhi’s growing importance, India remains Australia’s great ‘strategic blind-spot.’ Although Canberra is making some efforts to improve military-to-military ties with India, its diplomatic engagement with New Delhi is poor. Indeed, the relatively undeveloped relationship between Canberra and New Delhi is the weak link in terms of India’s improving network of government-to-government relationships with key security partners in the Asia-Pacific.

The Indian economy still has a long way to go before it is irreversibly on the path of successful development. But on the back of a vibrant and growing middle class of around 300 million people, it is already a giant in Asia growing in confidence, ambition, power, wealth, and influence. Its rise is not feared by other Asian states and its values and interests are closely aligned with our own. Given that diplomatic and economic resources are limited, the current focus on building new security architecture is an unnecessary distraction. Washington and other capitals in Asia recognise that when it comes to collectively meeting the challenge of China’s rise, deepening bilateral relationships with emerging centres of power such as New Delhi are an important priority. If Australia is to remain a strategically and diplomatically clever, active and relevant middle power in the future—and a key player in future security institutions that might be built when the Asia-Pacific region is ready—then looking northwards towards India rather than just East Asia is crucial.

 

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