"No Worries" on China say Aussies, but India knows the neighbourhood

11 June 2013

By Christopher Kremmer

A version of this editorial was published under the headline "Clash of the Titans" in The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 8 June 2013 

Next time readers feel the urge to whine about the Federal government, taxes, real estate prices and public transport, pause for a moment and imagine you lived in India.

Several hundred million people mired in poverty, with no social security system worth the name in a part of the world bristling with terrorists, nuclear weapons, and severe environmental challenges. All made worse by the pressure of more than a billion people who need electricity, transport and housing.

An opinion poll released recently by the Australia India Institute and Lowy Institute provided a rare insight into how these citizens of the world’s soon to be most populous nation view their situation. And far from being weighed down by their troubles, Indians by and large retain their characteristic optimism, bordering on chutzpah.

But first, what troubles them? Which countries do they fear?

Had you asked that question three years ago, the answer might have been Australia! No, they hadn’t been watching too many episodes of Joe Hildebrand’s Dumb, Drunk & Racist television series about Bogans and other eccentric species Down Under. The Indian news media’s coverage of the impact of violent crimes affecting Indian students blackened our image in India.

Recent research suggests some improvement in Australia’s standing, and it’s not difficult to see why.  With countries like Pakistan, Iran and China for neighbours, the benchmark of what constitutes dangerous is rather high in the region.

Indians too frequently wake up each morning to read about – or worse, directly experience the effects of – Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists murdering innocent civilians on their streets. We share their pain, but on a more modest scale. Yet the dangers we face are common.

Not only does neighbouring Pakistan harbor some of these extremists, but its scientists are working hard to miniaturise that country’s nuclear ‘deterrent’. Imagine what Osama bin Laden could have done if his pals in Pakistan had given him a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon.

India, let’s not forget, also has The Bomb, and Iran is trying to get its version. But given the links between official Pakistan and feral Pakistan, the situation there is of greater concern to people all over the world. 

Most days it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Stressed out by our lack of an appropriate work-life balance, bombarded by emails and phone calls – and opportunities – we barely notice when Chinese troops decide to take a stroll along the border with India, crossing over into disputed territory as they did in April.

Indians of course don’t have the luxury of forgetting. Not surprisingly, Pakistan and China loom large in their fear world, as illustrated by the latest poll, which was conducted before the recent Chinese territorial incursion. Eighty-four percent of Indians polled regard China as a threat.

This week’s historic first visit to Australia by an Indian Minister for Defence showed that our two governments are to some extent alert to the dangers. But we still regard China as a better friend and a preferred partner compared to India. Our closer ties with China and view of the Middle Kingdom as a low-risk horn of plenty means that Beijing’s maneuverings in the South China Sea, and Pacific and Indian Oceans concern only pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing policy wonks.

But just because Australians seem blithely unconcerned about the tectonic shifts happening around us in Asia, it doesn’t mean Indians are. As analysts of the polling cited earlier observed, “Indians are deeply apprehensive about what they perceive as China’s assertive or even aggressive attitude towards India, fearful of its policies in the region and anxious of its growing capabilities.”

Yet here’s a curious fact. On China, Australians and Indians are involved in a rare reversal of roles. Surveys taken in Australia over decades show that despite our relative security and prosperity, we are generally anxious about external threats. Yet when a trickle of refugees land up on our shores in leaky boats it causes more alarm than the rise of a one-party dictatorial state close to home.

Indians, by contrast a people renowed for their ‘live and let live’ approach to other countries, have clearly got the heebee jeebies about Beijing. Living cheek by jowl with the country in question, and subject to regular harangues for its temerity in providing asylum to the Dalai Lama, India has a better sense of the actual position.

As the recent polling found, despite the rising threat of China, Indians still want better relations with Beijing. But just in case, they strongly support closer ties with the United States.  

It reminds me of those millions of smiling faces that meet you whenever you visit India.  Challenges are everywhere but hope springs eternal.

In 1962, when India and China fought a brief border war, the Chinese made deep incursions into Indian territory then suddenly stopped and retreated. Perhaps they decided they did not really want India’s massive problems. Or maybe they realised they have no future there.

Before they left, or so the folkore has it, the Chinese troops cleaned the barrels of rifles they had captured from Indian troops before returning them to their prisoners and sending them home. Beijing’s mind games are nothing if not elegant.

By comparison India seems shambolic. A recent article in The Economist painted a grim picture if New Delhi doesn’t hasten the pace of economic reforms, which the current government has allowed to slacken in recent years.

Australians may lament Indian victories over us on the cricket field, but it is in Australia’s interest that India should be strong and prosper. For without a stable India, the fears of Chinese domination that Australia’s neighbours feel so keenly, might one day become our own.