India-Australia relationship blossoms despite Russia differences

Albanese announced on the weekend that Australia would host Operation Malabar – a major joint naval military exercise between India, the United States and Japan – for the first time this year.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi will meet several times this year. Credit:James Brickwood

“Our relationship goes from strength to strength,” Albanese told Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar during a visit to Sydney.

Jaishankar told a forum organised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that India was willing to change its rules to allow Australian universities to open campuses in India, a move that could expand Indian student enrolments by at least 100,000 a year.

Australian universities currently have overseas campuses in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, but none in India.

The Australia-India relationship has recently blossomed despite the nations’ starkly different responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


While Australia has denounced President Vladimir Putin’s government and supplied Ukraine with weapons and financial aid, India has abstained from several high-profile United Nations votes condemning Russia’s invasion.

India depends on Russia for over half of its defence equipment and has dramatically increased its purchases of Russian oil and gas since the war began.

“All our partners, including Australia, but also Japan, United States, understand the Indian position [on Ukraine] quite well,” Vohra said.

“We’ve said very publicly and repeatedly since the beginning of the conflict that this is not an age for war, that you need to have respect for the principles of the United Nations and that the peaceful settlement of disputes is the only way to do it.”


He said growing tensions in the region, including with China, meant India could not deny its “significant dependence” on Russian military equipment.

“We live in a very difficult neighbourhood,” he said. “We have faced aggression in recent times, we have a live border situation in many cases, and therefore we must not jeopardise our defence preparedness.”

At least 24 soldiers were killed when China and India clashed in the western Himalayas in 2020, and tensions continue along the disputed border.

Vohra said concern about China’s increased assertiveness had drawn Australia and India closer.

“Whenever there are tensions in a region, it’s natural for like-minded partners to get together and see how they can face those emerging challenges,” he said.


A new free trade deal that eliminated tariffs on 85 per cent of Australia’s exports to India came into force in late December. Vohra said the nations should now ramp up efforts to strike a more ambitious pact, known as the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement, that has been bogged down in negotiations for over a decade.

Vohra said the nations should expand co-operation on critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt and silicon – essential components of electronics such as smartphones – as well as the photovoltaic cells used for solar panels. China currently dominates both fields.

“You are blessed with a huge number of those minerals; we are blessed with a market size,” he said.

“I see powerful reasons for us to join up and do this together directly to create more resilient, more stable, more trusted supply chains.”

Vohra said India reduced tariffs on Australian wine imports in the latest free trade deal, the first time it had agreed to such a clause with any country. He said while Indians had not traditionally been big wine drinkers, consumption was growing strongly as the nation’s middle class expands.


Vohra said free speech and media freedom were not “under any threat at all” in India despite the government last month ordering social media platforms to block access to BBC documentary called India: The Modi Question. The documentary revealed a British Foreign Office report claiming Modi was “directly responsible” for the conditions that led to deadly religious riots when he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

Indian tax authorities last week raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai.

“Even in Australia, when it is felt necessary, there are restrictions that can be placed on freedom of expression,” he said. “This particular documentary we felt was required to be pulled down.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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