Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has strongly supported India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, saying that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country had moved from “underselling and underperforming” on the global stage. “India has always been a colossus of a subcontinent, but it hasn’t always been active globally. With Modi as Prime Minister, it has found its voice again. I think that’s going to be good for India and the world,” says Abbott. Taking his argument forward, the former Australian Prime Minister added, “Today, if there is one country on the earth which by virtue of its size, strength and potential has a claim over a position in the Security, it would be India. Personally, I would be very supportive of India entering the UNSC. India would be another democratic superpower in the Security Council. The world would be a better place if there are two democratic superpowers, not just one.” In a free-wheeling interaction with Sanjana Mohan during his recent visit to New Delhi, Abbott also touched upon his personal rapport with PM Modi, how free trade deal between India and Australia is a win-win scenario for both countries, why the US should not leave Afghanistan in a hurry, and how the economic slowdown being witnessed in India is a seasonal interruption rather than structural. Edited excerpts from the interview:
This is your third visit to India since the first time you came here in the 1980s. What changes have you witnessed in the country? And what’s the agenda behind the visit?
I have had two visits as a politician. Back in 1981, I had spent three months in India travelling around most of the country. I came away from India then with a strong sense of its strength and vast potential. Ever since I have believed that the rise of India was on the horizon and when that would happen, it would be good not just for the Indians but the entire world. As the Prime Minister, I was keen to swiftly deepen and strengthen the relationship between the two great nations. I put in place the nuclear understanding as a result of which we are now exporting uranium to India. I also did my best to revive the quadrilateral security dialogue between India, United States, Japan and Australia. My one disappointment is that as Prime Minister, I was not able to finalise the free trade deal that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and I had committed to doing. I am sure that Scott Morrison, the current Australian Prime Minister, will put this deal back on track when he visits India in February next year.
You have a great personal rapport with Prime Minister Modi. How do you see him as a person and a global leader?
I think Narendra Modi has been the most significant Indian Prime Minister in many years. Obviously, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a giant of history. Even Mrs Indira Gandhi was a significant Prime Minister, even if there were some flaws in her overall record. Modi became Prime Minister with a wonderful sense of vocation and commitment. He is one of those prime ministers who has been tirelessly working for his people. Under his regime, there is no sense of India underperforming and underselling itself. India has always been a colossus of a subcontinent, but it hasn’t always been active globally. With Modi as Prime Minister, it has found its voice again. I think that’s going to be good for India and the world.
You have always pushed for free trade deal between the two nations. Why?
Prime Minister Modi has created a lot of goodwill for India in Australia, and vice versa. The important thing is to turn this goodwill into practical actions and concrete outcomes. This is where the free trade deal comes into place. Australian coal, for instance, pays 5 per cent tariff when it comes to India, while Indonesian coal doesn’t pay any tariff. Australia is a reliable supplier of high quality coal and that tariff on its coal is in reality a tax on Indian consumers. It’s a tax on Indian environment, too. Australian coal, after all, is cleaner than Indonesian coal. The free trade deal would mean cheaper and cleaner power for Indians.
What are the common challenges and opportunities?
Both countries want a stable, peaceful and freer world. Both have a strong and demonstrable commitment towards democracy, rule of law and international system that respects the rights of all nations. I think the sheer commitment for democracy and rule of law makes us natural partners.
Despite shared values, interests and aspirations, the Indo-Australian relationship couldn’t justify its full potential. Where do you think things have wrong?
I don’t think things have gone wrong. For me, they haven’t gone sufficiently right. After all, the relationship between the two nations has never been bad. But I concede that the relations have been a bit underdeveloped. Prime Minister Morrison has said recently that as far as he is concerned, India is placed in the first tier of Australia’s friends. The important thing is to transform this friendship into practical cooperation. This is where the free trade deal comes in. This is where the quadrilateral security dialogue becomes relevant. This arrangement is not against anyone. It’s an arrangement for democracy, peace and rule of law.
There are some concerns about slowdown in Indian economy. How do you see it?
It’s normal that market economies periodically go through rough patches. But India’s growth has been consistent over the last few decades. Over the last five years, India has been the fastest growing large economy in the world. I am, therefore, confident that whatever seasonal interruptions there might be, India will overcome it.
So, you think it’s a seasonal interruption...
Yes, it’s seasonal and not a structural problem.
Modi became Prime Minister with a lot of expectation to further rejuvenate Indian economy. But the ongoing economic crisis is dampening the overall mood. How do you see it?
The job of the government is not to pump the economy one day and slow the economy down the next day. It’s the job of the business. The job of the government is to get the fundamentals right. That means low and simple taxes, honest and transparent administration, clear and fair laws, a constant effort to produce good education and infrastructure system. In all this, the Modi government has been doing a good job.
Why do you think the quadrilateral coalition between India, the United States, Japan and Australia is important?
Because these four countries are the most significant and strong democracies in the world. India is the world’s largest democracy and one of the most resilient ones as well. The United States is still the country towards which the world looks at first and foremost for help. Japan has been an exemplary international citizen. And Australia is one of the world’s oldest democracies, if universal and female suffrage is to be taken into account. The more these countries work together, the more this world would be free and peaceful.
Many see it as an anti-China coalition. But Australia has close ties with China. How do you explain this supposed contradiction?
Of course, we have a strong economic relationship with China, which is our single biggest trading partner. But it makes sense to have a strong economic relationship with China, and vibrant security ties with the United States and stronger partnership with India and Japan.
There are fears that once the US forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban might make a comeback. Do these apprehensions bother you as well?
I think these fears are quite justified. That’s why the US forces must not leave Afghanistan. President Donald Trump is very keen to end America’s wars, which is understandable. America has paid a very high price to be the global guarantor of peace and security in the last seven decades. I think it’s time for other countries to do more. America can’t be expected to bear all the burdens of this vital task. At the same time, Afghanistan can’t be allowed to once again become the haven of terrorism. I believe the Afghanistan government will need international support and that’s why the US forces should remain in Afghanistan.
India has taken a strong position against Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. How do you see this?
When I was the Prime Minister of Australia, I had interactions with the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. I have no doubt that Sharif was just as concerned to stamp out terrorism as the rest of us. But the problem is there are elements in the Pakistani security apparatus that appear to think that there are good Taliban and bad Taliban, and that some Islamist extremists could be tolerated. I think it’s very difficult to make this kind of distinction. If you try to ride a tiger, you could end up getting mauled. I think the main challenge is to be bring the Pakistani Army under an appropriate civilian control. But it should be done wisely so that it doesn’t create any repercussion.
When you were the Prime Minister of Australia, you signed a nuclear deal with India. What was the idea behind that?
It was the Howard government, before 2007, which had first agreed for an arrangement with India on the issue, but it was abrogated by the next government in 2009, which was a big mistake. Despite that setback, Australia’s relationship with India remained cordial, but Indians were rightly disappointed with the abrupt scrapping of the arrangement. I always believed that India was the right country to get uranium from Australia. Why should India be barred when less benevolent nations were given that opportunity? I am happy that we are now exporting uranium to India.
Do you think energy is the big thing that would bind the economies of India and Australia?
Absolutely. It’s impossible to bring people from the Third World into the middle class without a massive increase in the per capita energy. As you move from relative poverty to relative prosperity, your per capita energy improves and increases. This is where Australia can be helpful. We have the largest readily available reserve of coal, gas and uranium. I want Australia to be the source of energy security to India. I think that is an integral part of India moving its millions of relatively poor people into the middle class and take its rightful place in the comity of great nations.
There are many roadblocks in India’s endeavour to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. What’s your stand?
It’s always difficult to change a stand. The system in place we have today is the immediate byproduct of World War II. In those days the global position of India was different. Today, if there’s one country on the earth which by virtue of its size, strength and potential has a claim over a position in the Security it would be India. Personally, I would be very supportive of India entering the UNSC. India would be another democratic superpower in the Security Council. The world would be a better place if there are two democratic superpowers, not just one.
What’s the message you have for those who want to invest in Australia?
I would say that they shouldn’t look at the controversy surrounding Adani to make any negative assessment about investing in Australia. The people of Australia have very strong and natural affinity for the people of India. India has one million ambassadors in Australia in the shape of Indian diaspora, which growing by the day. So, there is enough goodwill for India and Indians in Australia. Which makes Indian investment in Australia easier and profitable. This is where I get back to the free trade deal which I and PM Modi in 2014 had committed to implementing within 12 months. Unfortunately it got derailed but let’s hope it comes back on the agenda when Morrison visits India early next year.
How do you see the India-Australia relationship shaping up in future?
The relationship needs to be much more than just about cricket. Australia is one of those countries which makes a very good partner. We are big enough to be useful but not big enough to be overbearing and intimidating. We don’t bring the same historical baggage that other countries bring. That’s why I think India can look towards Australia as an uncomplicated and trustworthy partner and friend.
What are the sectors that the two nations can work together?
Education is a field where the two countries can collaborate closely. Tens and thousands of Indian students are studying in Australia every year. It’s important that it continues. Also, there is lot more that can be done in the field of defence and security. I also think that as a part of the quadrilateral dialogue we could see a lot more cooperation across the board in intelligence sharing.