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Exclusive Interview of Prof. Rory Medcalf

Aman, the founding editor of Ytharth interviewed Prof. Medcalf on India-Australia ties, Indo-Pacific and Quad and on range of other issues.

The interview originally appeared in the digital and print editions of our bi-monthly magazine.

The Australia-India economic relationship was already taking off in the first decade of the century. And even when I was working in New Delhi 20 years ago, I could see that the maritime interests of the two countries would bring us closer together.

Aman: India and Australia share many common things. They are both functioning democracies, avid cricket lovers, and now QUAD members. Yet, the relationship picked up only recently and particularly during the current leadership (PM Modi and PM Morrisson) in the two countries. What according to you, was the initial limitation to the growth of the relationship?

Prof. Medcalf: There was always a long-term structural logic to a close relationship between India and Australia. I began working in India 22 years ago. I was posted to the Australian High Commission, New Delhi in 2000, at a difficult time in the relationship. Even then, I could see the enormous potential and logic of the closer partnership. As we can see now, there is an economic logic, human logic, and values logic. Both are democracies and great complements to each other’s societies. There is a security logic, strategic logic, and geographic logic in the Indo-Pacific. So, I think that this was always going to happen. It was a matter of time. But there were many obstacles to be overcome before them. The progress that has been made in the past decade is extraordinary. But I think it’s not just a consequence of the political decisions that the two governments have made. I agree that leadership and politics have been important. But there was an underlined momentum from, for example, Indian migration to Australia, shared interests in countering security risks like China or terrorism, and the democratic impulses of the two societies. What changed is that open-mindedness and awareness blossomed between both countries. There is a recognition of all we have to offer, and a willingness to look beyond some of the misunderstandings of the past. India and the Modi government have set that momentum but there were already signs of it under the previous governments. As far back as 2006, I recall the Australian government led by PM John Howard, in Quad discussions with the Man Mohan Singh government about possible uranium sales. The Australia-India economic relationship was already taking off in the first decade of the century. And even when I was working in New Delhi 20 years ago, I could see that the maritime interests of the two countries would bring us closer together.

Aman: India and Australia have had very tense relations with China after 2020. While Indian forces and the PLA violently engaged in the Galwan Valley, Australia had a troubling experience with China on the economic front. Do you think China acts as a catalyst in the recent growth of India-Australia ties? How do you access the responses of the two countries against the Chinese belligerence?

Prof. Medcalf: To be honest, Australia has ultimately followed India’s examples on a lot of security issues. From the 1962 Sino-India war to India’s struggle against terrorism, Australia has followed in some ways the Indian experience. Now, when it comes to the contemporary strategic challenge from China, the reality is that for at least the past 15 years, Australia has been looking with considerable suspicion at China’s strategic intentions. Our security establishment had concerns about the impact of China’s power, and the use of such power by an authoritarian government.

Likewise strategic mistrust of China has informed India’s security policies for a long time. But again, the Indian government has often been very careful and cautious about articulating that. Like Australia, India wants a future of co-existence with China and mutual respect, which means respecting India’s interests and values. So, with Australia, we can see that there has been a reality check in the past six or seven years. There has been a profound realization in our policy community that risks probably outweigh opportunities with China. Though the economic opportunity is there as China remains the largest trading partner, it is the strategic risk of China leveraging the economic relations for undesirable security purposes that now compels us to manage and, in some cases, limit our economic relationship. Therefore, 15 years ago, when both Australia and India were in Quad 1.0 (2007), there was probably quietly a perception both in New Delhi and Canberra that the other country was the weak link in the Quad. It was because Australia under the Kevin Rudd government was focused on opportunities in China relations despite privately being worried about the security issues. Also, the Indian government did not wish to be seen as part of a highly aligned coercion against China or against anyone. All that has changed through Chinese behaviour in recent years. Australia has experienced economic coercion from China since 2020 and political interference since 2016. India, on the other hand, had confrontational experiences on its border with China, particularly the PLA brutality in the Galwan valley. These confrontations have brought us across the final threshold of Australia- India recognizing that we are actually very likeminded in countering China and its power and that we need to work together.

3. Aman: Professor, let us move towards the concept of Indo-Pacific and Quad grouping. ASEAN features very prominently in the joint statements released after the India-Australia Leaders Virtual Summits. How do you see the role of ASEAN in the entire Indo Pacific construct and what role do you see for India and Australia in Southeast Asia?

Prof. Medcalf: It is important to recognize how ambitious and pioneering both India and Australia have been in their Indo-Pacific visions. The Australian government champions the idea of a two-ocean strategic system, a multipolar region, where we want to build partnerships to prevent hegemony or domination by China or by any other power. India, in its own way, under PM Modi has been very clear and firm in articulating an inclusive Indo-Pacific vision of connectivity which he emphasized at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, in 2018. So, both India and Australia have been very active in reframing the region as the Indo-Pacific, as about two oceans, and building new coalitions accordingly. Both countries are concerned about China’s coercion. Both countries have engaged with the USA. But both countries certainly recognize the special role of the ASEAN collectively and also individual ASEAN countries like Indonesia in particular. PM Modi’s Vision and the Australian government’s Vision both respect ASEAN centrality and the challenge and opportunity arise for us to work with the South East Asian partners, to reframe the region, where no one dominates, rules are respected, and the sovereignty, interests, and diversity of smaller states are respected. We have to work patiently with institutions like East Asia Summit. We can respect ASEAN centrality in the diplomatic institution on the one hand, but we can still do creative things through mini-lateral arrangements like the QUAD on the other hand, and try to bring the two together. For example, in vaccine delivery, technology, countering misinformation, and development standards. Sometimes, we can maintain that extra agility that comes from bilateral or mini- lateral cooperation, without having to wait for ASEAN consensus, because it takes a long time. So, it’s a complicated path to take. One of the beauties of the Indo-Pacific idea is it recognizes a legitimate role for India in South East Asia, Pacific, and East Asia, just as it accepts the legitimate role of East Asian powers in the Indian Ocean. It is really important because I can’t see any turning back now from the journey of India as part of the ASEAN strategic mainstream.

4. Aman: Since its inception Quad has been more or less perceived as an intended security grouping targeted at containing China. India particularly has not been very enthusiastic about the possible security character of the Quad and emphasized its more dynamic roles. Do you see any role for the QUAD to also emerge as an alternative to the massive Chinese investments in the Indian Ocean and as a more favorable destination for Island nations of the Indian and Southern Pacific Oceans?

Prof. Medcalf: We have to be realistic. No one is pretending that QUAD is going to spend as much money or pour as much concrete or build as much as China is building through the BRI. I think the QUAD can be smarter than that. We can play the rest of the strings, leverage our partnerships and look for keynotes where we can make a difference in the regions. For example, whether it’s in technology, vaccine delivery, environmental management, oceans, climate, etc. QUAD countries together, in other partnerships, individually, can achieve a great deal without bankrupting themselves. One of the major concerns in China’s BRI aid, investments, and influence plans, is that these and the region are so vast that things can go easily out of control. Beijing could well fall into the trap of imperial overstretch. This could be bad for China’s economic interest in the long run just as also it can provoke local resentment in many of the regional countries. The QUAD needs to avoid that trap. The QUAD should be open to working with a wide array of partners and it should focus on standards more than scale. If we can focus on improving governance and education in developing countries, for instance, we help them make wise decisions, whether to say yes to some BRI projects with local conditions attached, or to say no to BRI and look to democratic alternatives.

5. Aman: Free open rule-based order in Indo-Pacific has been the ultimate goal of all the QUAD countries. What are the ways to achieve this goal? Is it possible to achieve the goal without engaging with China?

Prof. Medcalf: In my book “Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the contest for the World’s Pivot Region” I have talked about managing differences with China without it automatically leading to conflict. In the book, I argue that we need to play a long game. We need to look multi dimensionally - military, economic, societal, information, and so on. We need to be very open to a diverse array of partners to harness the multi-polarity of the Indo-Pacific. So, the Quad is only a part of the answer. But India and Australia are exceptional convening states, exceptional middle players in the Indo-Pacific, and they offer a kind of core strength in building coalitions with Indonesians, French, Europeans, Japan, British, and Koreans with the United States of course, even if the US is sometimes more the background than always in a leadership role. We should adjust and fit these coalitions to each individual challenge of the Indo-Pacific. Some coalitions will be dealing with development and humanitarian and environmental issues. Others will be dealing with military, security, intelligence, and so forth.

“There should be five principles of competitive coexistence in the Indo-Pacific -national resilience, solidarity, development, deterrence, and diplomacy.”

There should be five principles of competitive coexistence in the Indo-Pacific. We need to focus on national resilience so that each of the countries is strong individually and therefore a credible partner to others. And that’s why, for example, the AUKUS arrangement of Australia with Britain and the USA is seen as hoping to build Australia’s strength and make it a good partner for India in the long run. Secondly, we need to think about solidarity, about building a coalition to support one another in times of crisis. Thirdly, we need to think about the development to meet the human needs of the societies and that explains the need for technology. Fourthly, we need to think about deterrence. The iron-fist of military power, at certain times, behind our negotiations is going to be vital. That’s why it is good to see India modernizing its military capabilities. Lastly, the role of diplomacy is still a much more affordable and sensible way of managing differences and coordinating allies. If you apply these five principles of competitive co-existence in the Indo-Pacific across our policies, I think you will get a reasonable starting point to manage the China challenge. The truth is that this is going to take at least a generation. It needs the next 15-25 years to reach a stable equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. By then, I anticipate, that India would be a much more substantial power. Youth is on India’s side, which is one of the reasons I am so pleased to have this conversation today and I commend you for your publication. But we have to be patient.

6. Aman: How do you see the overall status of the relations? What opportunities lie for the two countries and what problems do they need to overcome for a smooth and ever-going relationship?

Prof. Medcalf: Looking at India-Australia relations, we have travelled a very long way in a short time. I was very focused on the potential of the relationship when I was working in Delhi 20 years ago. I saw a natural complementarity. In particular, I saw the outstanding human capital that India brings and the natural resources, the developed economy, and converging security interests that Australia brings to the equation. I saw the combination of all those as providing a natural partnership for the 21st century, and it looks now that political process and diplomatic imperatives have driven us to that point. But we need to avoid complacency or false comfort in relationships. There have been difficult experiences for Indian students in Australia, differences over nuclear tests, and something differing regional security approaches. These have troubled the relationships. We need to work on breaking down the barriers to improve economic relations. The recently concluded trade agreement is fantastic news but it is only a part of the journey. We need to find ways to have, as open as possible, an economic doorway between two countries. We need to build a ‘league of champions’ inside the countries, so when there are stresses and strains (normal between two democracies), we will have supporters of the partnerships with an eye to a long-term relationship. The role of the next generation is also important. We have, for example, developed Australia-India youth dialogue over the past decade- it’s been a fantastic initiative, for which I’ve had a lot of admiration. A free, frank, democratic and open exchange of views between very vibrant communities makes India-Australia relations a model for international cooperation.

7. Aman: India is celebrating 75 years of its Independence as “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav”. How do you see India at 75?

Prof. Medcalf: On balance, India has been a great success, not without problems of course. But its extraordinary to build and maintain a mega-democracy over almost an entire human life-span and still going strong. It is extraordinary to see that despite the challenges of underdevelopment and , economic disparities, there has also been very substantial economic development, advancement in technology, and increasing levels of engagement with the world. In particular, India can be very proud of its success as a civilizational state that protects its interests but also acts with restrains in the international system. So, if India can absorb and manage the lessons of its history and continues to manage internal differences in a democratic way then it has a promising future. Friends of India want to see India at its best.

About Professor Rory Medcalf

Professor Rory Medcalf is the Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University since 2015. He is a prominent scholar of Indo-Pacific and India-Australia relations and is the author of the globally renowned book “Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America, and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region (2020)”. His professional background involves three decades of experience in diplomacy, intelligence analysis, think tanks, academia, and journalism, including as founding Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute from 2007 to 2015. He was posted as First Secretary to the Australian High Commission in New Delhi from 2000 to 2003, and has subsequently played a lead role in informal diplomacy and dialogue between the two countries.

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