In the lead up to Australia’s federal election, the foreign policy debate has largely focussed on how the next government will engage China. What is missing from the discussion is how Australia will engage India, the region’s next great power.
Australia goes to the polls on 18 May to participate in what will be a one-day election, yet across the Indian Ocean the largest democratic exercise in history is taking place. 900 million Indians are eligible to vote, 130 million of them for the first time. It takes five weeks to move through the seven phases of voting. India’s elections are among the world’s most expensive – administering the 2014 general election cost half a billion US dollars.
Everything about India is enormous. It is the world’s sixth largest economy, and the fastest growing economy over a trillion dollars in size. India’s economic size will surpass the United Kingdom by the end of 2019, and PwC forecasts it will be the second biggest global economy by 2050. India’s rise is a significant contributor to the shift in the global economy’s centre of gravity toward the Indo-Pacific region.
The economic weight of India alone means that if Australia is genuinely committed to engagement with the Indo-Pacific, the next government must double down on engagement with India. A clear opportunity to bring India into the regional fold is to look again at India’s omission from APEC.
Both sides of politics have accepted Peter Varghese’s recommendation that Australia should help bring India into APEC. Varghese is a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and previously served as Australia’s High Commissioner to India. Some players are yet to be convinced by the case for Indian membership of APEC, so Australian support could help build political capital across the region.
A recent Perth USAsia Centre report
surveyed views from across the Indo-Pacific on the appetite for Indian membership of APEC. While views on the opportunities and challenges varied, a common thread was that India’s membership is in the strategic and economic interests of Indo-Pacific nations.
The result of the general election in India should have little impact on the bilateral relationship with Australia. It was symbolically important that BJP leader Narendra Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia in 28 years. However, there is little reason to believe that a Rahul Gandhi-led Congress Government would have a negative impact on the bilateral relationship.
Last week Gandhi met with G20 officials and diplomats in New Delhi. It was reported that fighting terrorism featured heavily in the discussion. Indeed, rising tension between India and Pakistan has been a key feature of the election campaign for both Modi and Gandhi. South Asia’s geopolitical challenges are the focus of both their foreign policy agendas.
Last week Ambassador Anil Wadha, the author of India’s corresponding Australia Economic Strategy (due later this year) was in Perth. The growing complementarity between the Australian and Indian economies; as well as greater convergence on strategic issues, were central to his public remarks. This should serve as reassurance that India is open to Australia regardless of the election result.
For the next Australian government, sideline meetings at multilateral fora are an opportunity to advance its engagement with India. The G20 Leaders’ meeting takes place in Tokyo just one month after new governments in India and Australia are sworn-in. A bilateral meeting to discuss deepening ties between the two countries is important. Furthermore, the next Prime Minister of Australia should make a visit to India a top priority early in the first term of government.
India’s growing heft in an increasingly competitive landscape means it will shape the future of the region. Yet, given huge differentials in size and influence, the onus is on Australia. Now is the time for Australia to take a leadership role in deepening its engagement with India.