In its preoccupation with the perennial challenges in the neighbourhood and its enduring aspiration to dance with the great powers, India has in the past missed out on the opportunities for productive partnerships with the middle powers. Thursday’s virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Australian premier, Scott Morrison, is an important part of Delhi’s current diplomatic effort to plug that big gap in India’s diplomatic tradition.
Few countries have been as underestimated in India as Australia. Take the simplest metric, for example — economic weight. With a GDP of more than US$1.4 trillion, Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world, following closely behind Russia which stands at $1.6 trillion. Australia is rich in natural resources that India’s growing economy needs. It also has huge reservoirs of strength in higher education, scientific and technological research.
In the global diplomatic arena, Australia punches way above its weight. Its armed forces, hardened by international combat, are widely respected. Canberra’s intelligence establishment is valued in many parts of the world. Australia has deep economic, political and security connections with the ASEAN and a strategic partnership with one of the leading non-aligned nations, Indonesia. Canberra has a little “sphere of influence” of its own — in the South Pacific (now under threat from Chinese penetration). All these Australian strengths should be of interest and value to India. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed Australia is a natural part of Asia and invited it to participate in the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947, a few months before independence. But the rest of the 20th century was one of drift and alienation.
A political dust-up between Delhi and Canberra in the wake of India’s nuclear tests in 1998 complicated the possibilities that the end of the Cold War opened up. But since 2000, Canberra has taken consistent political initiative to advance ties with India by resolving the nuclear difference and expanding the template of engagement.