NEW DELHI – Narendra Modi took his geopolitical charm offensive to a new continent last week, speaking in Australia about the countries’ “deeply interlinked destinies” during the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the country in 28 years.
Modi probably understands better than any politician of his generation the yearning that young Indians — the children of the liberalization of India’s economy in 1991, and the first generation of Indians with a global-minded imagination — nurture not just for jobs and a better standard of living, but also a greater influence in and respect from the world. Accordingly, he has focused on the unusual but sound strategy of entrenching his authority at home by winning hearts abroad, including those of the vast Indian diaspora.
After successful tours of Japan and the U.S. in recent months to seek foreign investment and to draw attention to what he calls India’s “new energy,” Modi appeared to win over Australia’s parliamentarians this week with an impressive speech — in English, not his preferred language — in Canberra. He deftly laid out the reasons to forge a closer alliance between the two countries — not an easy task, given their obvious differences and lack of cooperation in the past — and proposed India as the logical destination “for new economic opportunities.”
Australians were impressed, too, when Modi began his address by acknowledging their indigenous peoples, “the traditional owners of this land on which we stand today.” They were likely also struck that he seemed to show a greater affection for conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott than many Australians themselves feel. (I was in Australia at election time last September, and the number of glum faces I saw in Brisbane on result day was exceeded only by those in New Delhi when Modi won his barnstorming victory in May this year.)
It is a propitious time in Australia for such a pitch from an Asian leader — helped, to some extent, by internal debates in Australia about the country’s deepening links with Asia, which may soon supersede its traditional alliances with the U.S. and Europe. A wave of immigrants from Asia — including about half a million people of Indian origin — means that this will be Australia’s “Asian century” as much as it is Asia’s in the world. About a quarter of Australian citizens today were born outside Australia, and a third of those were born in Asia.
Until fairly recently, Australian governments’ hostility toward Asian immigrants meant that the country was seen as “white Australia”; meanwhile, India’s lumbering economy seemed to Australia an argument more for encouraging tourism than encouraging economic cooperation. Despite the obvious opportunities for an alliance between the two large economies, India was always caught up with the more immediate environment of Southeast Asia and its troubles with Pakistan and China, while Australians — most of them living on the country’s eastern flank — were more likely to look toward the West.
Things have changed. As Michael Wesley wrote in 2012, it’s only recently that “India’s and Australia’s strategic imaginations have started to correspond for the first time.” Military and maritime cooperation between the two would serve to counterbalance the growing ambition of China in the South Pacific as well as moderate Australia’s dependence on China, its largest trading partner. There lies much untapped potential in India’s vast consumer market for Australian goods and services — even, Modi promised, as a manufacturing base.
Further, India’s rising energy demands and recent troubles with energy production mean that it is in need of Australia’s largest export: coal. (Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Modi’s visit was the news that India’s largest public-sector bank had agreed to loan $1 billion to businessman Gautam Adani, a close friend of Modi’s, to start a new coal-production plant in Queensland that will supply coal to India.)
Even so, there was more than a touch of hyperbole in Modi’s claim that he had come to Australia “to unite in the spirit what we once were in geography.”
I thought Australian writer Thomas Keneally a much more realistic interpreter of both past and present when I heard him say in Goa last month, “Australia is so deeply embedded in Asia, and yet we’re uneasy about it — particularly Australian conservatives. Conservatives want to trade heavily with Asia, but not to be ethnically threatened by it.
But it’s all happening, and there’s a tension in Australia between our need of Asia — and our increasing Asianness — and our traditional white imperial alliances with Britain and, above all, the U.S. That tension is still unresolved in Australian history, and the process may take a hundred and fifty years.”
That process of Australia being drawn toward Asia is one in which a more ambitious India now looks set to play a much bigger part.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi.