India received two high-ranking visitors from overseas recently. Both were from Western nations, both were seeking to improve relations with the South Asian giant. There the similarity ends.
For United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it was a triumphal progress. She secured a multi-billion dollar deal to build two nuclear reactors that will provide jobs in both countries and exports of nuclear material for years to come. India agreed to purchase sophisticated weaponry under specific safeguards. There were also promises of joint co-operation to reduce climate change. Details were discussed for a State visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington.
A few days earlier Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, had slipped into New Delhi on a very different mission - to try and shore up relations and deliver reassurances in the wake of widely reported attacks on Indian students in Australia and the protests that followed.
While Clinton was hailing a “deepening strategic partnership” and “greater defence co-operation”, statements which had American companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric and Westinghouse virtually salivating at what this will mean to their balance sheets, Evans was in damage control, hoping that India’s leadership will not be taking too much notice of the lurid headlines and calls for reprisals that have been appearing in their country’s more sensationalist media.
Even given the fact that the US is bound to carry more clout in New Delhi than any other international visitor, the contrast between the two visits was spectacular and in many ways highlights the difficulties that have plagued the Australia-India relationships since Indian independence in 1947. Historian and India expert Dr Auriol Weigold of the University of Canberra says the problem can be traced back to a “toxic” relationship between Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Indian counterpart, Jawaharial Nehru.
“Menzies was devoted to the British Empire, Nehru had taken India out of the empire and for that and for a multiplicity of other reasons, they could not get on,” she says. “While Menzies was around there was a virtually complete neglect of India as a possible partner of any sort.
“India still takes every opportunity to beat us over the head with the White Australia policy, which was a feature of the Menzies era.”
There have been attempts to repair that initial damage. In a recent Asialink essay, the Asia Pacific Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, Hamish McDonald, points out that Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was conscious that his government’s overtures to China in the early 1970s should be balanced by a strengthening of ties with India. McDonald says that after the departure of Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser visited India three times while Bob Hawke enjoyed good relations with his Indian counterpart, Rajiv Gandhi.
Yet incredibly, the visit of Gandhi during the Hawke era 23 years ago was the last by an Indian Prime Minister. Paul Keating’s international focus was mainly on Indonesia and South-East Asia generally, while under John Howard, the emphasis was solidly on China and the United States. Australia’s flip-flopping over India’s nuclear weapons program - Prime Minister Howard initially condemned it, then agreed to uranium sales, only for that policy to be overturned by the newly elected Labor Government in 2008 - has also stoked the perception of Australia as an unreliable partner.
Australian Kimberley Layton, a South Asia analyst based in New Delhi, says the uranium question remains a sore point, especially after the deal with the United States.
“My impression is that Indians believe Australia does have an interest in developing a bilateral relationship, but they are handling it badly,” she says.
McDonald says that Indian patience will eventually run out if the Rudd Government remains caught in a policy dilemma of its own making on nuclear issues, describing Labor’s support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty as “anachronistic” following American acceptance of India’s weapons status.
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