India-Australia Relations

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Dec 3, 2017
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India signals its will to broaden ties with Australia in meeting with Foreign Minister Penny Wong​

India's External Affairs Minister has given a strong indication that New Delhi is comfortable with Australia's plan to develop nuclear powered submarines, declaring that his country backs the international nuclear watchdog's handling of the issue.

Key points:​

  • India's External Affairs Minister said that India viewed Australia as a serious and comfortable partner
  • Australia and India have rapidly beefed up strategic and security ties over the last decade
  • New Delhi is stepping up diplomatic engagement in the Pacific regions

In a wide-ranging interview with the ABC, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also acknowledged that economic ties between Australia and India remain underdone, while predicting a new interim trade agreement between the two countries will help bolster the business relationship.

And he flagged that India is likely to boost its diplomatic presence and aid program in the Pacific in the future as its economy grows.

The External Affairs Minister sat down on Monday with Foreign Minister Penny Wong and senior officials in Canberra for formal talks on the first leg of his visit to Australia.

Canberra and Delhi have rapidly beefed up strategic and security ties over the last decade, including through the Quad leaders meeting and an expanded array of joint military exercises.

A man and woman stand on a stage giving a press conference with the Australian and Indian flags behind them.

Dr Jaishankar is on his second trip to Australia this year. (ABC News: Pedro Ribeiro)
Dr Jaishankar said the expanding contact between top brass in both countries showed India viewed Australia as a "serious, professional and comfortable partner".

He didn't disagree when the ABC suggested senior Australian officials and military officers wouldn't have been able to get the same sustained access to the top levels of the Indian system only a decade ago.

"Times change, people change, the world changes," he told the ABC.

India signals to broaden ties with Australia​

Several Indian media outlets have also reported that New Delhi played a key role at a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Geneva by convincing several countries to block a draft Chinese resolution which declared that Australia's nuclear submarine plan violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Beijing has been running a relentless diplomatic campaign against AUKUS, and last month accused the IAEA of "turning a blind eye" to how Australia's submarine ambitions undermine the treaty and raise the risk of nuclear proliferation.

But Dr Jaishankar told the ABC that India had faith in the IAEA processes and leadership.

"The matter came up before the IAEA and we took the view that, you know, you have the agency itself under a very distinguished and capable Director General who would evaluate his responsible view of it. And I think we were comfortable with what he did," he said.

A woman sits at a meeting table looking at a man across from her.

In talks with Senator Wong, the Indian Foreign Minister would not say how the country would vote in a UN resolution condemning Russia's Ukraine invasion. (ABC News: Pedro Ribeiro)
When asked if India played a crucial role corralling votes against China's resolution, Dr Jaishankar said he didn't want to overstate India's role in the debate.

But he also said other countries "obviously" discussed the matter with India's representatives at the IAEA.

"I think a country like India, when it gives its views — I don't want it to seem immodest — but I think others listen to us and take what we say very seriously," he said.

"Beyond that … what your partners do between themselves it is it is really their choice and their judgement and for them to take a call on."

He also signalled that he was intent on trying to bolster economic ties between Australia and India.

While Australia's exports to India shot up last financial year, the jump can largely be attributed to a massive boom in thermal coal sent to India in the wake of China's ban on the commodity from Australia.

Several analysts say it's imperative for Australia and India to broaden and expand economic ties if they want to cement their strategic partnership, and Dr Jaishankar told the ABC he agreed with that assessment.

"I do not disagree. I agree. [Trade ties] haven't kept pace with the political comfort [between the two countries]," he said.
The External Affairs Minister said the interim free trade agreement both countries signed earlier this year – after more than a decade of protracted negotiations – would help fix the problem.

"[It was for] precisely that reason, we decided to do the AI-ECTA," he said.

"And we also were, in my view, sensible enough not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

"We found a landing point, which was comfortable for both of us. And my expectation is that you will see the economic side growing."

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar talks in a meeting.

India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar signalled that he was intent on trying to bolster economic ties between Australia and India.(Reuters: Andrew Harnik)
The interim agreement effectively excludes some sectors due to domestic sensitivities in both countries.

In Australia, dairy and chickpea farmers were deeply disappointed not to be granted better market access in India.

Both Australia and India have previously said they want to press on and strike a full agreement, but Dr Jaishankar said he was focused on ensuring the interim pact was ratified by Australia's parliament.

"Why don't we first digest what we've got on our plate, before we start looking at, you know, bigger things," he said.

"So, let's get the AI-ECTA done. Let's get the taxation amendments done, let's grow business, let this move a little bit. So that, you know, people in business learn to think bigger."

India's diplomatic engagements in the Pacific​

The meeting between the two foreign ministers came as Penny Wong prepares to make yet another trip to the Pacific this week as she looks to reinforce Australia's position in the region.

Strategic competition has been escalating in the Pacific, with both the United States and China intensifying efforts this year to woo Pacific island states.

New Delhi has also stepped up its diplomatic engagement in the Pacific, and there has been persistent speculation that it may soon open a High Commission in the capital of Solomon Islands, Honiara.

Dr Jaishankar told the ABC that India hadn't "actively considered" opening a diplomatic mission in Honiara.

But he stressed that an increasing number of Pacific Island nations were moving to open Embassies in New Delhi.

"What I can tell you is, in fact, is a number of Pacific islands are opening missions in India.

"Nauru has just done that, and I believe two more countries had approached us with their plans," he said.

India ramps up defence industry​

While India remains the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, the region's other rising power, China, is also increasing its maritime forces.
An aerial shot shows a large aircraft carrier being escorted by smaller vessels through a narrow pass.
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"We expect the Pacific Island representation in India to grow, which to me, would make it common sense that I also find some ways of expanding my footprint [in the Pacific]."

"But that's not there right now."

Dr Jaishankar said India saw the Pacific as a "particularly vulnerable part of the global south."

He also stressed India had already been helping a small number of Pacific Island countries with medical and financial support in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have, for some years now, believed that sharing developmental experiences, and supporting many of these countries on some of the key challenges is something we should do, we should do for their good, we should do it for the good of the world," he said.

"It's an old fashioned term … I would say I think it's a moral duty.

"We have been involved to the best of our ability. Obviously, as we become a bigger economy, there's a little bit more that we can do. And we should do, in my view."

India's reliance on Russia​

While Australia and India increasingly see eye-to-eye on strategic challenges posed by China, there are still significant differences between the two countries on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Australia has been one of the most vocal critics of Russia's invasion and is a leading provider of military equipment to Ukraine outside of NATO.

But India – which remains heavily reliant on Russia for military equipment and has strategic ties with Moscow dating back decades – has abstained from several key UN votes on the matter.

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India's relationship with Russia
After meeting with Senator Wong, Mr Jaishankar told the Australian media that the war "does not serve the interests of anybody" but declined to say if India would back a planned UN motion condemning Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territories.

India also abstained from a vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to debate human rights violations in China's Xinjiang region, although the External Affairs Ministry later said publicly that China should ensure human rights of Uighurs should be "respected and guaranteed".

Dr Jaishankar brushed off a question from the ABC on the vote, but pointed out that India has traditionally been hesitant to target individual countries at the Human Rights Council.

"Different countries have different traditions. I'm not commenting on any particular vote [but] we generally never support countries specific resolutions when it comes to the Human Rights Council in Geneva," he said.

"It's an across the board position we have taken over a considerable period of time. So, I think I would urge you to take our own practices into account when judging us."