26 February 2020
In India this week, Donald Trump addressed the biggest political rally of his career. More than 100,000 people attended a “Namaste Trump” event, which was held at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Gujarat, home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Onstage, Modi and Trump shared a hug (Modi’s trademark) and exchanged lavish compliments. Both leaders are self-styled political outsiders, willing to stoke xenophobia and fan the grievances of their support bases.
And yet, ties between the United States and India remain strained. This is partly because the nationalist impulses of the two leaders inevitably lead to clashes, particularly on trade. But it is also because the United States has struggled to forge close relations with India, despite their increasingly aligned interests. Australia faces the same problem. All three nations are democracies, keen to counter Chinese domination of the Indo-Pacific. But even under Modi, these common interests have not been enough to overcome India’s reluctance to commit to international blocs.
Economically, India tends to see itself as playing catch-up to wealthier countries and therefore not obliged to obey their rules. Diplomatically, it adopts a similar position: it does not believe it needs to accommodate great powers or fit neatly into alliance structures. This helps to explain, for instance, its reticence to promote the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a security grouping involving the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Late last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressly described “the Quad” as existing to ensure “China retains only its proper place in the world”.
Australia, like the United States, has a complicated relationship with India. For Australia, part of the problem is that it sometimes neglects ties with India and assumes that dealing with this fellow Commonwealth nation will be easy. Trade between India and Australia has grown, but should be stronger. Talks on a trade deal have continued for almost a decade, without success.
There are avenues for Australia and India to deepen ties, especially since their interests often align more closely than those shared by India and America. Both countries worry about China’s economic rise but want to avoid foreign policy positions that might anger China and jeopardise trade relations. While Scott Morrison has publicly supported the Quad, he has also downplayed its ambitions, and – unlike America – has avoided explicitly presenting it as a vehicle for containing China.
Developing a stronger relationship with India should be one of Australia’s highest priorities. Recently, Modi invited Morrison to address last month’s Raisina Dialogue, an annual geopolitics conference that Modi has backed as part of his effort to adopt a more active role in global affairs. Modi was not offering a joint rally before seas of admirers, but an opportunity to publicly advance the case for Australia and India’s shared interests in the region.
Morrison initially accepted the invitation, planning to lead a business delegation to New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Unfortunately, however, he ended up cancelling the trip. After his infamous Christmas holiday to Hawaii, he feared leaving the country again during the bushfire crisis. Rather than miss one or two of his daily press conferences on the fires, he passed up his chance to meet Modi and address the leadership of the world’s largest democracy.
Still, he did send a message to India: when domestic politics clash with the national interest, Australia is still trying to sort out its priorities.