Can we now look forward to a world that has moved on from the Covid-19 pandemic? Is it now the right time to build a new 21st century with more optimism and regional cooperation, where no country is left behind in the battle for health and economic growth?
Two countries—India and Australia—are well-placed both economically and strategically to play a leadership role in this future. They both have strong strategic and economic motivation to see peaceful cooperation and growth in their neighbourhood.
It’s a big neighbourhood—if you put a circle around India, China and Australia, you will find there are more people living within that circle than outside it. The region surrounding India and Australia will emerge as the key player, determining whether this future is a glorious dream or a nightmare—economic cooperation or trade wars, peace or border conflicts, cooperation or brute power, free speech or no speech, free democracies or powerful dictatorships. India and Australia now need to create something that is both tangible and symbolic, something that incorporates shared values and vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific Region.
The Prime Ministers of India and Australia spoke about it last week. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used Twitter this week to reinforce the important relationship with Australia: “Spoke with my good friend PM @ScottMorrisonMP today. Reiterated our commitment to consolidating our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Also discussed regional issues of common interest. Look forward to working together for peace, prosperity and security in the Indo-Pacific.”
India has already taken some positive regional steps, using “vaccine diplomacy” to provide the vaccine to poor neighbours. In this way, it has shown how future leadership can grow from this pandemic.
Many countries are well-placed with the vaccine—the top countries by doses are the US, China, the UK, India, Israel, Brazil, the UAE, Turkey, Germany, Russia, France, and Australia will start vaccinations next week.
Missing from this list are most of the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim, the Pacific Islands and those in Southeast Asia. Many cannot afford to join the vaccine queue. In one way, all these poorer countries are the regional neighbours of India and Australia.
We cannot have good health and peaceful relations at home if we do not have it across this volatile region. Every economic and strategic connection between India and Australia—growing stronger in recent months—will be weakened unless we live in a region that shares our experience. Our region needs the vaccine, it needs economic development and some comfort with strategic relations. Many are looking to India and Australia to do something neither have been able to do in the past—to lead the region.
For a start, the two countries could cooperate to help the many countries in our region which will struggle to fund and implement a vaccination programme. There could be an opportunity for India and Australia to lead a regional initiative to benefit these struggling nations.
The two countries can push harder to create a regional body or coalition around shared values—democracy, inclusion, peace, rule of law, free speech and cross-border friendship. Both have been impacted by the recent aggressive attitudes coming from the leaderships of China—India has faced military challenges on its borders with China while Australia has been heavily punished in trade relations as a result of publicly calling out China on the Coronavirus.
It is now clear that China is not a reliable “partner”, either economically or strategically. When it chooses to stop discussions, it simply closes the doors. Few countries in the region can have cool conversations with those in power in China—unless it suits China to have the conversation.
India, Australia and Japan have formed closed partnerships now around supply chain issues and security in the region. It is time for India and Australia to build that coalition of interests among our neighbours—the many countries around the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia who are on the path of democracy, free speech, inclusion and economic growth. For many, this path is rough terrain and their grip on these values can be fragile. We need it to be strong.
This is not advocating an “anti-China” future for India and Australia. It is simply saying that if India and Australia can step up as regional leaders, we can build a better region around shared values and growth. What China thinks about all of this is up to them. We should not exaggerate our ability to influence their leadership. How we get on with China is more in the Chinese hands than ours. Border skirmishes with India have been initiated by China, not India. Trade wars with Australia have been Chinese action alone.
Instead of focusing on the unknown and the uncertainty of China, India and Australia can control how we engage with the region and how we combine to create strategic security and economic growth—not just for each other, but for the region.