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New India wants respect

By Neville Roach - posted Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The flurry of visits by federal ministers and state premiers to India clearly demonstrates that Australia is giving the bilateral relationship more priority than ever before.

However, many of these visits have appeared reactive - exercises in damage control following the Indian student crisis. Our relationship with India tends to be marked by sporadic bursts of crisis-driven activity, followed by prolonged lulls thereafter.

The problem may well be an over-familiarity that leads each country to take the other for granted. We invariably talk about all the things we have in common, but seldom focus on our differences, leaving a huge gulf in understanding on several important matters. Little wonder that the relationship is frequently stressed to breaking point over single issues, which a stronger, strategic friendship would have taken in its stride.


The heightened awareness of each other, a fortuitous consequence of the student imbroglio, gives Kevin Rudd an unprecedented opportunity to take the relationship to a new level during his forthcoming visit to India.

While both sides will need to make special and sustained efforts to build stronger ties, it is in Australia's interest to take the lead. Without discounting Australia's importance, especially our abundant mineral resources, to India, we must appreciate this assessment of the August report of the parliamentary committee inquiry into Australia's relationship with India: "As an emerging world power, India will often have its focus elsewhere. Australia is a relatively small country - to gain India's attention, it must work hard on a number of fronts."

Another compelling reason for us to make a special effort is that India is fast becoming our biggest supplier of skilled human resources. To attract its best and brightest, we will have to win their minds and hearts.

Rudd's 2020 Summit also emphasised India's rising importance. The stream I was part of - Australia's future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world - strongly recommended the "engagement of major regional economies: US, Japan, China, India", probably the first time a high-level public forum grouped India with the countries that dominate Australia's foreign policy focus.

To translate this recommendation into reality, we have to play catch-up, benchmarking our links with India against those we have already forged with the US, Japan and China.

This would prompt us to accelerate our free trade agreement negotiations with India and to institute a bilateral dialogue along the lines of the highly successful Australia America Leadership Dialogue.


The India we are now faced with is a new, confident and assertive country, one which expects to be recognised as a major power in its own right. New India, above all, wants respect. This can make it very sensitive and quick to react, or even overreact, to perceived slights or inappropriate treatment of its citizens, as was so evident in the Indian media's coverage of the student issue.

It also expects to be treated seriously. Our image in India will benefit if we display more gravitas and resist the traditional compulsory references to superficialities such as cricket, curry and Bollywood.

We should also approach India with openness and honesty. On sensitive issues such as racism, we should avoid our usual reaction of denial. Acknowledging that, like every country, including India, we are not free of racist behaviour, will give us credibility when we rightly take credit for our non-discriminatory immigration policy, our transformation from White to Multicultural Australia, the thousands of students who have received a good education here and the burgeoning number of Indians who happily call Australia home.

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First published in The Australian on October 29, 2009.

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About the Author

Neville Roach AO is chairman emeritus of the Australia India Business Council and has recently been appointed to the Indian Prime Minister's Global Advisory Council of Overseas Indians.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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