On recrafting Australia’s relations with India

It’s as much about institutional capacity as it is about issues of the day

Rory Medcalf from Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy wrote an open letter to Australia’s new foreign minister. Excerpts:

Your Government has the opportunity to ensure that Australia becomes permanently serious about India, and to manage any ill-feeling that might arise in New Delhi from ruling out uranium sales.

Early reassurance, at the highest level, that Australia wants qualitatively improved ties with India. Any misperception that Australia might focus on China at India’s expense needs to be scotched.

Proper resourcing of Australia’s diplomacy with India: this has several facets. India is not just another country. The billion-plus scale of its population is echoed in its cultural and geographic diversity and the size and complexity of its mass media, political and business interests. In this context, and if your agenda is ambitious, the tradition of representing Australia’s interests in India with modest diplomatic, bureaucratic and financial resources cannot last. It is time to consider a full India branch in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and a diplomatic presence beyond New Delhi. If Canberra sees fit to deploy diplomats (rather than narrowly-focused trade representatives) in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, why not Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata? Finally, DFAT has not cultivated a single Hindi-speaker in a decade. Yes, India’s elite speaks English. But much of the political life of the country uses the vernacular, and to consider it not to be worth schooling a single Australian diplomat in that language is a false economy, not to mention an insult to a major world civilisation. (Hindi is also a backdoor to Urdu, and Australia’s diplomatic and security agencies desperately need talent in that language.) [Lowy Interpreter]

Medcalf’s arguments echo what this blog wrote during the Mohammed Haneef imbroglio: Australia must invest in institutional capacity that to engage India. Mr Stephen Smith would do well heed the contents of Rory Medcalf’s memo.

6 thoughts on “On recrafting Australia’s relations with India”

  1. I find it really interesting to see how Australian DFAT is responsible for both foreign affairs and trade, signifying how closely coupled they are for Australian interests. That should give some hints to MEA and MoF on the approach to take in developing better relations with Australia -> “increase trade to improve strategic relations”

  2. NRA,

    Yes, it’s not a bad idea putting international trade within the foreign affairs ministry. But I’m not sure if it will be necessarily better: I suppose we can make a case for defence to be rolled into it too. While consolidation of ministries will theoretically improve “jointness” the bureaucratic output might not yield this in practice. Decisions on creating or restructuring ministries at the top level are hardly ever stem from pure technocratic reasons: politics—both of the electoral and the organisational kind—is a key determinant.

    We must recall Australia is a country of only 25 million or so people.

  3. NotReallyAnonymous,

    A minor correction, it is not MoF (Finance) which deals with foreign trade in India. The agencies, I believe, are MoC (Commerce) which is the policy-level body and DGFT (Directorate General of Foreign Trade) which is an executive agency.

    Taking international trade away from MoC (which handles a lot many other things) and putting it in MEA would indeed be a good idea. But as Nitin said, it is unlikely to happen anytime soon in India. Not only are there politically vested interests, the IAS lobby would fight such a move tooth and nail.

    However, there is some convergence already. If you read the budget figures, MoC funds a part of MEA. This is the part which is spent on Economic/Trade/Commerce Wings abroad in our Embassies. There is a certain quota of officers for MoC to post in these posts. As should be obvious, the IAS and IFS lobbies have a power-struggle going on for these posts.

  4. no no :), I never meant the DFAT model as “attractive” for us, only “interesting”. Though a higher degree of inter-operability, — convergence as B.O.K mentioned is being incorporated, would be nice.

  5. Hope you’ve heard about Australian refusal to sell Uranium to India. They refused because we havent signed NPT. I wonder if that means they wont change their stance even if the Indo-US nuke deal goes through because they’ve placed signing of NPT as a condition and not the Nuke deal.

    But come to think of it, its not surprising coming from a government headed by Rudd, who’s considered a China hand. He worked there for a few years and speaks Mandarin.

    I do hope he realizes the key role Australia is expected to play in the still-developing India-Japan-Australia-US relationship. I hope he doesnt dilute Australian role in it because of his affinity to China.

    Looking forward to a post about this. Thanks

  6. NRA,

    You’ve identified an important issue. Did you read Rory Medcalf’s piece?

    A piece on India-Australia relations is on the cards…perhaps in the coming issue of Pragati.

Comments are closed.