Aligning Australia’s COVID response to our Indo Pacific foreign policy

By Sonia Arakkal

Australia’s temporary India travel ban and our inaction at the WTO have endangered the bilateral relationship with India and undermined our attempts to be seen as a team player in the Indo Pacific.

Lawyers, ethicists, shock jocks and even our beloved test cricketers weighed into the debate surrounding Australia’s temporary ban on its citizens returning from India.

Collectively they have invoked the law, human rights, and Australian values to call for the reversal of the decision.

If you remain unconvinced, there is a self-interested, foreign policy imperative to bring Australian citizens in India home. Though the ban is coming to an end on Friday the damage to our foreign policy has been done.

This ANZAC Day, Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo was unambiguous. “The drums of war are beating,” he declared, calling out China directly. Our leaders are emboldened to make such declarations because Australia is supported by key partners in the Indo Pacific, including the Quad.

Alongside Japan, the US and ourselves, the fourth member of the Quad, India, is the only member who has entered into armed conflict with China in recent years. This makes them a crucial partner in the Indo Pacific. And the louder those drums beat, the more important a strong, reciprocal relationship becomes.

In recognition of this, the Australian Government has been growing the bilateral relationship with India. Two major joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean last year, the Quad Leaders’ meeting in March, and the launch of the Australia India Business Exchange last month were all important developments.

At the launch of the latter, Trade Minister Dan Tehan noted that the program built on “our close people-to-people ties and shared vision for a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

However, the pause on repatriation flights and threat of jail terms for returning citizens risks undoing those ties when we need them at their tightest.

Historically the Indian Government has not shied away from calling out Australia when they perceive that people of Indian origin have been targeted.

For example, following a series of violent assaults on Indian students in 2010, perceived by India to be racially motivated, the Indian Foreign Minister, S. M. Krishna, urged the Australian Government to take action. He noted that “it certainly will have some bearing on the bilateral ties between our two countries.”

Government policy like the pause on repatriation flights, which is far more significant, will not go unnoticed.

Central to the strategic relationship between Australia and India is the economic. The importance of the economic relationship with India was catalysed last week by China’s suspension of all activity under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. Many see this as the first formal step towards severing government ties between China and Australia.

Attracting international students and skilled migration from overseas has always been an important part of Australia’s long-term economic plan. India will increasingly become an important partner in these areas given the precariousness of the economic relationship with China.

However, this economic relationship has been jeopardised by the pause on repatriation flights. For Indian international students and skilled migrants, the pathway toward citizenship is a big draw card to coming to Australia.  But the Australian passport carries less weight in a world where we turn our back on our own citizens in a time of crisis.

With countries like the US and UK providing better protections to their citizens, we risk international students and skilled migrants, especially from India, choosing those countries over Australia. As the New York Times recently reported, Australia is the only democratic nation that has banned its own citizens from returning home.  

Australia is also making international headlines for not backing India in World Trade Organisation meetings. Australia failed to support a call, led by India and South Africa, on behalf of more than 100 nations, for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules to boost vaccine access for developing nations. Trade experts argue this puts the profits of pharmaceutical companies above the lives of billions in middle and low-income countries, including those in our region.

Australian charity of donating vaccines to Papua New Guinea and India is commendable, but in the eyes of our neighbours and partners such as India, supporting the waiver is more valuable in the long term. Last week the United States reversed its long-held opposition to the waiver, in the interest of being a team player in the Indo Pacific; Australia must follow suit. 

Australia needs to act wisely. Heavy-handed responses at the WTO or at our borders could have serious implications for our relationships in a contested Indo Pacific.

Now is the time to ensure our repatriation and trade policies are consistent with our broader strategic objectives in the region, so that if the drumbeat of war grows, we aren’t left as a one-man band. 

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