Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2021

‘Pivot to India’ by Michael Wesley, in Australian Foreign Affairs #13 (2021): India Rising, Asia’s Huge Question, edited by Jonathan Pearlman

As usual, I am hopelessly behind with my reading of The Australian Foreign Affairs journal to which I subscribe.  Alas, Issues 11 & 12, The March of Autocracy and Feeling the Heat are languishing on the shelf, and there are three Quarterly Essays to be dealt with too.  However, there is a case to be made for leaving them there and reading the most recent one first.  India Rising is not only highly relevant to Australia’s geopolitical concerns, it’s also a topic about which I know very little.  I suspect that the preoccupation with China means that I am not alone.

In the Introduction, Editor Jonathan Pearlman makes the point that Australia has never had much of a relationship with India, despite being two democracies, having a shared colonial heritage and bookends in the Indian Ocean.  Tony Abbott when PM promised a free trade deal after India’s PM Narendra Modi visited Australia in 2014.  We still don’t have one.  Our two-way flows of trade and investment are paltry, and India favours foreign policy non-alignment and autonomy, whereas Australia celebrates its alliance with the United States. 

In the first essay ‘Pivot to India’, Michael Wesley expands on the theme, showing how Australia was unsympathetic to India’s claim for Independence, is still judged racist because of the White Australia Policy, and was highly critical of India at the time of the nuclear tests in 1998.

The 1998 Pokhran tests represent the nadir of Australia’s relationship with India.  Both sides drew on decades of misunderstandings and irritations.  For Australian officials, the tests showcased India’s tendency to buck international consensus and to hide self-interest behind condescending moral principle.  For Indians, Australia’s hectoring arose from a privileged, white, probably racist attitude, talking down to others while cowering under America’s strategic skirts. (p.7)

Yet, surprisingly, within a couple of years our PM visited India; the Indian defence secretary visited us; and bilateral trade expanded from $3billion in 2000 to more than $20 billion within ten years.  Moreover, strategic partnerships have emerged.  In 2020 India’s PM Narendra Modi and ours signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, that has…

…an ambitious agenda of collaboration on science, technology, defence, counterterrorism, regional diplomacy, innovation, agriculture, water, governance, education, tourism and culture. (p.8)

Plus, there is the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) with the US and Japan as well.

Why the sudden enthusiasm?  China, of course.

Whereas Australia’s strategic gaze has long been to the north and east, away from India, India focusses northward, to unremittingly hostile neighbours: Pakistan in the west and China in the east.  

The partnership between Beijing and Islamabad means that India has long faced the German dilemma: the possibility of a two-front war against capable and coordinated enemies.  (p.12)

But just as Australia has had to reassess its blithe trade-based relationship with China, India had to reassess its foreign and economic policies after the end of the Cold War.

 The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived India of both its major backer and the bipolar world order that had made non-alignment possible. (p.13)

They had an economic crisis too, and had to be baled out by the IMF.  In the 1990s the Congress Party was defeated, and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), along with abandoning the commitment to secularism and developing nuclear weapons, also forged a new relationship with the US and its key allies.  Successive governments also saw India develop as a maritime power in the Indian Ocean, where it holds the strategic position that was so attractive to Britain in the days of Empire.

China comes back into the picture when we recognise that their most serious strategic liability is their dependence on energy from the Gulf.  India’s strategic position at sea means it has the potential to interrupt energy flows across the Indian Ocean with enormous consequences for the Chinese economy, not to mention the possibility of depriving its armed forces of significant capabilities to fight a conventional conflict. 

Of course the US and its allies are very interested in limiting Beijing’s capabilities and ambitions.  And India now sees value in Australia’s close relationship with the US too.  However there are significant challenges to be overcome, not the least of which is that India — although beginning to look like a conventional great power — will never be a great power of the sort that Australia has become familiar with.

Britain. the United States, imperial Japan and communist China have all been effective at concentrating and deploying power.  India, and probably later Indonesia, will be a different proposition.  Vast internal diversity and the absence of what Russians refer to as a “power vertical” — a clear and authoritative hierarchy of control over society and economy — will always make the power India can wield outside its borders disproportionate to its size. (p.24)

(Though, you might well wonder how well the US is going to manage control of its divided nation…)

For us, with the US ceding its pre-eminence in the Pacific, it means we will have to adapt to a multipolar regional order — perhaps the greatest challenge its institutions and policymaking processes have ever faced. 

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include these essays:

  • Aarti Betigeri explores the fast-growing Indian Australian community and its potential to reshape Australia’s ties to India.
  • Snigdha Poonam examines rising anti-China sentiment in Narendra Modi’s India.
  • Harsh V. Pant reveals how India views Australia and how Canberra can supercharge relations.
  • James Curran uncovers the origins and ambitions of the Australia–Indonesia security deal under Paul Keating.
  • Elizabeth Buchanan looks at Australia’s options as China expands its Antarctic operations.

There are also reviews of new books:

    • Don Greenlees analyses Peter Job’s A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian violation of East Timor.
    • Dennis Altman interrogates John Ikenberry’s A World Safe for Democracy and the rise of liberal internationalism.
    • Jane Perlez analyses China Panic by David Brophy, and Red Zone by Peter Hartcher

This journal is always good value!

Update 1/12/21: I’ve now finished reading the journal:

  • Aarti Betigeri’s ‘New Wave’ article was interesting on many points but was most surprising to me was the way the Indian community in Australia is said not to be cohesive.  Indians come here, overwhelmingly, because they are well-educated and ambitious but there is too much competition for jobs in India.  Once here, however, they quickly hive off into social groups that align with where they come from: from north or south India, the state, the sub-region, the religion. They are said to have the habit of siloing into niche communities which is ultimately detrimental.  There was also disturbing acknowledgement of the rise of domestic violence in the Indian community, with Indian women being the second-highest group of callers to the 1800RESPECT helpline.
  • ‘TikTok Wars, why India’s youth are hating on China’ revealed how the long-standing animosity over border wars including Indian casualties in the Galwan River conflict is played out with vicious demonstrations involving a mob carrying a wooden gallows to ‘hang’ Xi Jinping.  The government, for its part, has banned Chinese apps such as TikTok, with Indian substitutes represented as being an alternative loyal to India and its interests.  Fuelled by Covid 19, anti-Chinese sentiment is increasing, , but the India-China trade relationship is still strong despite India’s repeated efforts to economically “decouple” from China.  It would be interesting to know how China reacted to these events…
  • ‘Seeing China Coming’ shows how far-sighted Keating was in pursuing the security agreement with Indonesia.  “You get your chances with history… your chances at the window of opportunity”, he said, and although the pact didn’t survive the conflict in East Timor, President Widodo is apparently not averse to restoring it.  Do any of our current political leaders, I wonder, have Keating’s courage to try it?
  • I didn’t like the proposal put forward in ‘The Fix’, that Australia should approve the Davis runway in Antarctica in order to deal with its strategic problem.  It’s protected under the current treaties, but climate change, resource insecurity and renewed great-power competition are weakening that agreement, and Buchanan thinks that Australia should build the first paved runway there in order to take advantage of the opportunities that offers to protect against territorial claims from China.  She may be right, but I’d rather there were some alternative that doesn’t involve despoiling Antarctica’s pristine environment.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  India Rising? Asia’s Huge Question
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 13, Oct 2021
ISBN: 9781760642129
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library


  1. It’s complex picture for Australia and very important that the best minds are engaged to build a more peaceful and fairer geopolitics for the future.


    • Yes, I can’t say that I feel confident about the current crop of politicians, but hopefully the bureaucrats who advise them are on the ball.


  2. Given our typo discussion the other day, you might like to know there is a ‘u’ missing from your title of this post :-)


  3. […] Michael Wesley | Pivot to India (non-fiction) in Australian Foreign Affairs #13: India Rising? Asia’s Huge Question, edited by Jonathan Pearlman (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]


  4. […] From Bill at the Australian Legend: I deal with non-sequitur comments with a Pivot to India by Michael Wesley in the Australian Foreign Affairs Journal. […]


  5. […] ‘Pivot to India’ by Michael Wesley, in Australian Foreign Affairs #13: India Rising, Asia’s Hu… […]


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