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Deepening ties

Fair dinkum, oye


Australia is clearly looking to deepen ties with India. We need to reciprocate, for a variety of reasons.

Julia Gillard is a woman with that rare attribute, 'spunk', and it's not because she attacked sexism with courage and conviction. Or because she responded with the perfect riposte after a shoe malfunction at Rajghat, as she was paying her respects at Mahatma Gandhi's memorial. It's because the Australian prime minister, here this week on a state visit, has assiduously courted India with not a lot to show for it yet, and still come back for more.

And that's why India needs to grow up and look at Australia differently. It needed courage to overturn decades of often dogmatic non-proliferation theology to agree to uranium sales to India, which she did last December. Her predecessor, the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd, would not.

This week Australia and India agreed to start negotiations on a nuclear agreement with safeguards and other bells and whistles. It will be a long time before India actually buys any uranium in yellowcake form from Australia, but it removed the political mistrust that had persisted. Besides, Gillard need not have visited - it's actually the turn of the Indian prime minister to go there - but she disregarded protocol. That's a more important statement of interest in India.

The Indian narrative on Australia is now past its sell-by date. Yes, they dissed us after our 1998 nuclear tests. Yes, they caught a cold after China sneezed on the US-Japan-India-Oz quadrilateral navy exercises. (So did Washington, by the way. ) Indian students went through a rough patch in Australia, which, as we found later, was largely attributable to dubious institutes and equally dubious candidates, many with dubious intentions.

Indians grunt about Australia functioning as the B-team of the US. (" How can they lecture us on our nukes when they live under a security umbrella?"). True. But then, so do the Japanese, and we have no problems negotiating a nuclear deal with them. If push comes to shove, will Canberra lean towards Beijing? An educated guess would be, no. Even Rudd did not go down that path. But India doesn't serve its own interests if its engagement of Australia is not up to snuff, so that prophecy may become self-fulfilling.

Quite apart from the cricket, Australia could become our vital partner in the Indo-Pacific, particularly as India begins to spread its wings over the Indian Ocean. We need to double our eyes and ears in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, which is largely why Australia is an easy pick as a partner. On the resources front, Australian coal is moving up the importance ladder for India. As are Australian educational and vocational training institutions. Australia is also a source of some very interesting technologies in new-age fields like renewables. And if you love that channa bhatura, spare a thought for western Australia which grows the chickpea.

As India looks east, beyond Singapore, we need to cultivate a partner that is compatible not only in its systems, but in its outlook - outside the cricket pitch.

Bollywood has shown greater strategic vision by going there before our nuclear theologians;and Bollywood is never wrong.

We're getting there, but slowly. India and Australia have started a modest dialogue on East Asia. Australia is taking over the chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim body, IORARC, which opens up huge possibilities of collaborative security. In fact, joint naval exercises are a no-brainer.

Washington has proposed a trilateral with India and Australia that may give Beijing the heebie-jeebies, so we'll wait a bit longer. But do consider the merits of two other minilaterals (as these things are called now) - India-Japan-Australia and India-Indonesia-Australia. There are many overlapping security interests and levels of outlook. Japan, for instance, has only three security agreements: with Australia, US and India. As China practices its parlour game of sabre-rattling in the seas to its south and east, a nervous Japan would certainly need some degree of support.

Similarly, Indonesia stands to become the next emerging power in this part of the world - that's great for both India (we actually share a maritime boundary) and Australia. Joint economic projects, resources...we could go on.
The interesting part of this is everyone from Australia to India has deep relations with China. As China becomes a superpower, India needs to understand China more. Australia has already been invested in China for much longer. It makes a whole lot of sense for India to invest in Australia.

India is Australia's fourth largest trading partner, and in recent years, the Indian corporate sector has been voting with its feet. Indian companies are investing heavily in Australia, but we need to give Australia greater mindspace in our strategic outlook. They are rapidly filling up an importance space.

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