In recent weeks, informal fighting between troops in the contested Ladakh region escalated to some of the worst clashes since 1967. While both sides are staying tight-lipped about the details, some policy experts are suggesting Australia should look to throw our weight squarely behind India.
ANU's David Brewster has made the case that Australia should look to formally back India, as the country faces off with China across its contested northern border. Writing for the Lowy Institute's The Interpreter, he makes a sound argument that we should back up a supposedly "comprehensive strategic partnership" with action, and not just words.
Beyond half-hearted shows of solidarity on the world stage (or even more tangible displays like AUSINDEX), the clashes provide one of the few opportunities to show support in the age of soft power and diplomacy.
Of course, trade ties between our countries are strong, and continue to balloon on the back of coal, copper exports, and a robust expat presence. Back in 2016, bilateral trade between the two countries had grown to some $21.9 billion, up from just $4.3 billion in 2003. At the time, this prompted prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to state that Australia and India's $20 billion two-way trade relationship was "a fraction of what we should aspire to, given the many points of intersection between our economies".
While trade remains heavily slanted towards the Lucky Country – with close to $17 billion in exports to India in 2018 compared with just $5 billion in imports from India – there have been steps taken to redress this. The India Economic Strategy Report, compiled by Peter Varghese for the Australian government in 2018, identified key areas where mutual growth is possible in the coming decade, including education, agribusiness, resources and energy, and tourism.
Yet ties between our nations run deeper than trade or cricket. It is a little-known fact that as many as 15,000 Indian soldiers fought alongside the Anzacs at Gallipoli.
So while Japanese, German, and Italian consulates offered carefully-worded condolences after India reported the deaths of some 20 troops in Ladakh's Galwan Valley, Australian diplomats seem understandably more inclined towards drawing lines in the sand.
Australia's high commissioner to the country, Barry O'Farrell, seemed to come out swinging, stating that “both India and Australia are grappling with the implications of creeping authoritarianism and the risks it poses to democracy, transparency and openness”.
His comments are backed in by Dr David Brewster, of the ANU’s College of Asia & the Pacific. An experienced Indo-Pacific analyst, Brewster suggests that “the confrontation appears to have been part of a comprehensive Chinese post-COVID strategy that has included assertiveness in the South China Sea and Senkaku/Daikyo islands and cyber attacks against Australia”.
While it remains to be seen whether the recent attacks did, in fact, originate from the Middle Kingdom, many have come to view Ladakh as a testing ground for regional partnerships and alliances. And as Foreign Minister Marise Payne pursues a more assertive approach to international dialogue – as embodied in her speech last week at the National Security Council – advocates like Brewster argue that Australia should seize the opportunity to shore up relations with India.
A look back at history
While Australia has historically purported to support India on the world stage, complaints from Indian bureaucrats have long fallen on deaf ears. Brewster notes that the Rudd government’s 2008 decision to pull out of the first iteration of what has come to be known as the “Quad” provoked anger in New Delhi, not least given it was announced in the presence of the Chinese ambassador.
Rightly or wrongly, Australian opposition to a series of nuclear tests carried out by the south Asian country in the late 1990s also came as a source of vexation within India, with parliamentarians lashing out at Canberra for seeking to distance themselves from a trusted ally.
Interestingly, the timing of the Ladakh crisis has coincided with a boon in India-Australian relations. Though PM Scott Morrison held virtual bilateral talks with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in recent days in order to establish a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, academics asserted that this had come about purely by chance.
Dr Ian Hall, deputy director of Griffith Asia Institute, put this down to the various crises that have come to define 2020.
“The timing is really due to the fact that Morrison could not travel in January because of the bushfires, and the coronavirus crisis then followed on after that. So this is really the first point at which a summit could happen,” he said.
“The fact that it has coincided with whatever is happening in Ladakh is an accident, really.”
Yet the fact remains that territorial tensions will continue to mount in the regions, given the significance of the Ladakh region to Chinese planners, acting as an economic corridor through to Pakistan and central Asia.
"Ladakh and eastern Ladakh is crucial for China's access to central Asia and CPEC project with Pakistan in which they [China] have invested billions of dollars [about $60 billion]," said Happymon Jacob, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University based in New Delhi.
With the issue likely to swell in the years to come as China’s Belt and Road initiative gains momentum, this will be a point Australian diplomats will have to address.
Yet with Sino-Australian relations at what might well be considered an all-time low, it might be an imprudent time to “poke Beijing in the eye about the Himalayas”, as Brewster puts it. Though if regional partnerships like the Quad are to take on any sense of meaning or significance, it will be necessary to double down on them at some point.
On its part, Japan has been a steadfast supporter of Indian sovereignty in its de jure territory, throwing its support behind India after the 2017 clashes in Doklam. At the time, Australia shied away from doing so ourselves – a point that seems curious, given we were open to criticising Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea. We certainly missed out on the opportunity to shore up relations with our Commonwealth ally, which has remembered Japan as a dependable ally in the years since.
But recent developments in DFAT seem to signal a sea change. Somewhat tellingly, Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s speech last week seemed to make veiled hints towards the breakdown in Sino-Indian relations, though she did not go so far as to address the elephant in the room.
“The engagement of the world's most populous democracy and a rising economic giant will have real practical outcomes for Australia, improving co-operation on matters ranging from cyber, defence logistics, to innovation and education,” she said. “This landmark agreement is built on and framed by our respective interests as democracies in the Indo-Pacific.”