Election Interpreter 2013
Danielle Rajendram is a Lowy Institute research associate. Her work focuses on Indian foreign and domestic policy, India-China relations and Asian security.
In an attempt to bolster his Asia credentials, Tony Abbott has identified Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea as his first overseas travel priorities if elected prime minister on Saturday. Identifying Indonesia as Australia's most important bilateral relationship, Abbott said 'decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington.'
Notably absent from this list is New Delhi.
If Mr Abbott is intentionally downplaying Australia's relationship with India, then under a Coalition government this will presumably make India the lowest of the five priority countries identified in the Asian Century White Paper. Given that India is Australia's fourth largest export destination and the source of one of our fastest growing migrant communities, it is difficult to understand its exclusion from our priority bilateral relationships. As I argued at the start of the campaign, India's growing economic, political and strategic significance will make Australia and India natural partners in the Indo-Pacific. This mustn't be overlooked by the next government.
It is equally likely that that Abbott's omission of India was nothing more than an oversight.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mr Abbott is in favour of stronger relations with India: he has supported uranium exports to India and has stated that as prime minister, he 'will treat India as one of the key countries helping to shape the future of Australia and the wider world'.
Nevertheless, neglecting to mention such an important relationship, even in a media interview, suggests a lack of diplomatic sensitivity that will need to be addressed in office. The bilateral relationship can be difficult to navigate at the best of times, and Mr Abbott's comments could be read in India as a deliberate slight.
Regardless of who wins on Saturday, the next government would be mistaken to think it can afford to coast off the hard-won gains made in Australia-India relations since the 2009 student crisis. India is being persistently courted by plenty of foreign suitors, and it will require concerted effort on Australia's part to maintain an edge.
Photo by Flickr user Meanest Indian.