On November 24, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be welcomed as the first state visitor of Barack Obama’s presidency. Meanwhile, Asian capitals such as Tokyo, Jakarta, Singapore and Hanoi have been busy courting New Delhi, with impressive results. The weakest link in Delhi’s growing network with centres of influence in the region is with Canberra.
If Australia wants to remain an active, relevant and influential middle power in Asia, then spending the next half decade improving our bilateral relationship with countries such as India is much more important and a better use of finite time, resources and energy than the nice-sounding but premature idea of an Asia-Pacific community. Indeed, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd needs to latch on fast to the prospect that a rising India could be the swing factor in this so-called Asian century.
Although India began its reform program more than 10 years after China, its economy too has been growing at 7 per cent to 8 per cent a year since reforms began in 1991. What’s more, in important respects India’s economic prospects appear more favourable. Unlike China, whose population is ageing, more than half of India’s population is under 25. If reforms continue, India will reap a significant demographic dividend well past the middle of this century. Already, India has a vibrant and thriving middle class of 300 million people, compared with 50 million to 100 million in China. This means it has a critical mass of people generating economic resources needed to entrench New Delhi’s status as not just a South Asian colossus but a leading centre of power in Asia as a whole.
However, it is not just about economic opportunities. When it comes to meeting the challenge of China’s rise, for the US and most of the region it is better to first bulk up bilateral security relationships before moving towards building elaborate and inclusive multilateral security institutions. Multilateral institutions in the region have always played a role in improving diplomatic interaction and reducing misunderstanding, as well as promoting norms of acceptable behaviour.
This has helped ensure that Beijing’s diplomacy and behaviour have so far been socialised. But its ambitions – such as its claim over four-fifths of the South China Sea and its desire to eventually exercise leadership in Asia – have not, and are unlikely to change.
This is explicit in six decades of Chinese foreign policy and defence pronouncements. Therefore, deepening bilateral security relationships in order to subtly but strategically encircle Beijing provides the ultimate guarantee against Chinese mischief even as the region cautiously welcomes China’s rise. It is the dual strategy of an iron fist in the velvet glove of regional diplomacy.
This is where India comes in. The rise of India is neither feared nor resisted by any Asian state except China. Indeed, New Delhi has been warily balancing and competing against Beijing from the moment of India’s creation in 1947 and increasingly so after their war in 1962. Even now, a low-level conflict is simmering in the disputed Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a land mass more than twice the size of Switzerland. China’s nuclear weapons stationed on the neighbouring Tibetan Plateau are frighteningly real for India. India is the only country not covered by China’s no-first-use nuclear policy.
New Delhi and the rest of Asia are carefully watching Beijing’s naval build-up in the Indian Ocean, as it far exceeds what is needed to prevent Taiwanese secession, the official reason given in Beijing’s defence white paper. Although Pakistan is on India’s immediate radar, China is the clear strategic competitor.
This explains the immense American and regional strategic interest in courting India. The Indian Navy already conducts extensive exercises with Washington and Jakarta, and increasingly with Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Hanoi. Some of these joint exercises include anti-submarine manoeuvres, with a clear eye on China’s growing submarine fleet. India is looking to co-operate with the US in building a ballistic missile defence system in Asia. Planned arms sales from the US to India are estimated to reach $US50 billion in the next few decades, meaning the Indian military is moving away from its traditional reliance on Moscow.
To be sure, Australia has belatedly caught on to the importance of India. Julia Gillard and Stephen Smith have both recently returned from New Delhi and the latter formally requested that Australia be allowed to join the annual Malabar naval exercises conducted by the US and Indian navies. Rudd will visit Singh in New Delhi this month.
But this is still too little even if it is not too late. It is a matter of ranking strategic and diplomatic priorities. The Rudd government’s strategic policy and diplomatic activity should genuinely treat India as a great power rather than offer only lip-service to the argument that it is one. India is still treated as a sizeable but strategic afterthought by the government.
Before rushing to build new security multilateral institutions, Canberra needs to do the hard graft of building strong bilateral relationships with centres of power such as New Delhi. Doing so is the best approach, not just for managing China’s rise but for ensuring that Australia remains relevant, active and influential in Asia, rather than on its sidelines.