US President Joe Biden is playing tough China cards early. The most recent is his proposal that the next meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue be at the leaders’ level. Confined once to officials, then foreign ministers, the move would intensify the Quad’s strategic signalling to Beijing.
It chimes with the call from Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, for a “chorus of voices” to push back against China. Channelling Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Sullivan sees the Quad as creating “situations of strength” in meeting the China challenge. That language alone should dispel any lingering doubts that this new White House might avert its eyes from the same Cold War missal as its predecessor.
So expectations in Washington, Canberra and Tokyo concerning India’s potential as a counterweight to China only grow. Whether the Quad alters regional strategic realities remains another question. As former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby notes in his recent book, they remain “four partners in bed, all dreaming different dreams”.
Others claim that what’s left of Indian Cold War neutrality drains ever more steadily from India’s strategic veins. New Delhi is not about to sign alliances, but it has already been pushed closer to the US by the events last year on the disputed Himalayan border, where 20 Indian soldiers died in skirmishes with Chinese forces, the first such clash in almost half a century.
“I don’t need to remind you,” intoned India’s Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in a speech last month, “what impact this has had on both public and political opinion [in India towards China].”
Jaishankar knows the importance of stabilising the China relationship “even while adjusting to changes”. He knows too, that following moments of tension in the past, New Delhi has had to “orchestrate a sense of recovery” in relations with Beijing.
Still, questions about India’s heft in the new world order will persist. A former Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary and high commissioner to India, Peter Varghese, says “the question of whether India can assume a greater strategic role lies in how quickly and effectively it can move on the economic front”.
What type of recovery India records after the hit of COVID-19 is as yet unclear. Economic growth was stalling before the pandemic. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, looks unlikely at this point to expend his vast political capital on the kind of ambitious reform agenda needed to lock in not only sustained growth but the kind of business investment climate that would make it possible for India to sign on to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
So fitting India into Australia’s strategic picture is not the breezy task some assert.
One hurdle continues to be complacency: the psychological trap that implies that simply because of a shared British heritage – Westminster democracy, the rule of law and a free press – India and Australia ought by rights to be snugly aligned.
A case in point is Tony Abbott’s speech to the India Foundation in late 2019, in which the former prime minister said that “a relationship between two democracies should be far easier to build than one between Australia and a one-party communist state like China”. And he expressed frustration with the more sober analytical judgment that “India is not the new China”.
Like Barry Humphries’ memorable quip about Australia itself, the Canberra-New Delhi relationship appears to be “endlessly coming of age”. Malcolm Turnbull talked of a relationship “underdone”. But it has been underdone for decades. Speaking in New Delhi in 1974, Gough Whitlam said there was “too much of the feeling that we can take each other for granted”.
Another is the almost studied refusal to deal with India on its own terms. No sooner had a raft of outdated cliches about cricket and the Commonwealth been heaved overboard than commentators saddled India with two herculean tasks: the first, that it be the counterweight to China; the second, that in the face of Beijing’s economic coercion it be the El Dorado of trade diversification.
These difficulties, however, pale in comparison to the alarming trend of illiberalism in Indian domestic politics. This is most visibly manifest in Modi’s extreme pushing of the Hindu nationalist cause and its persecution of Muslims, India’s largest minority. But he has also undermined the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press.
In a recent interview, former Indian vice-president Hamad Ansari referred to this as “hyper nationalism” and “strident nationalism”, a development he said was making India intolerant, arrogant and insecure about its place in the world. What we are seeing, Ansari said, is a “politico-ideological effort to superimpose the primacy of a religious majority”.
As Varghese notes, from an Australian perspective India’s secular, liberal, democratic character is fundamental to its attractiveness as a strategic partner. While India is not, in his view, “irreversibly set down the path of illiberalism”, Varghese adds the caveat that developments elsewhere, most notably in the United States, show just “how fragile the institutional underpinnings of democracy are”. Ansari’s outlook is more glum: India is lapsing into “arbitrary decision-making and even mob rule”.
How does this illiberal trend affect the rationale for Australia’s strategic relationship with India? “Ultimately, what’s driving regional concern about China is the character of its political system,” Varghese says. “So if that’s the starting point for your strategic analysis, then what is currently happening in India cannot be decoupled from the question of shared values.”
Modi’s authoritarian populism is putting the resilience of India’s democratic credentials under their severest strain since the mid 1970s. That will test the strategic logic driving Australia and India closer together.