Barry O’Farrell, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, says the Modi government’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not an issue for Australia.
Mr O’Farrell, the former premier of NSW, made the remarks at an event in New Delhi for the Australia India Institute, which is led by former Labor Senator Lisa Singh.
Lisa Singh, CEO of the Australia India Institute, and Barry O’Farrell, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, at the Australia India Institute.
Australia has expressed concern about suggestions India could bypass Western sanctions via a bespoke banking system and India has been forced to defend its decision to buy up cheap Russian oil.
Asked whether India’s “perceived neutrality” on Russia posed concerns for the newly revived Quad alliance – comprising Australia, the United States, India and Japan – O’Farrell said Australia opposed Putin’s war but respected India’s different stance.
“In relation to what’s happening in Ukraine, Australia’s made our position very clear – Australia understands India’s position,” he said.
He said the relationship between such close friends could withstand the difference in positions.
“Some of my best friends, I have differences [with] but I respect their right to support another football team, or their right to send their children to this school … so it has not got in the way,” he said.
O’Farrell pointed to India’s long history of ambivalence, quoting the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who declined to condemn the USSR’s invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Nehru said at the time that “generally speaking, we have avoided this business of condemnation, whether of small powers or big powers, not because we thought that we would gain anything thereby ourselves, but because when one is trying to solve a problem, it does not help calling names and condemning.”
“Our effort, whether in Asia or in Europe, has been to the extent we could do something to create an atmosphere for solution,” Nehru said.
O’Farrell said he understood India’s preference for a constructive approach.
While allied criticism of India is publicly muted, Australia, the UK and the US are urging India to take more forthright action behind closed doors.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visited New Delhi last week on the same day as her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Truss met her counterpart Dr S. Jaishankar while Lavrov was received by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Russia is India’s largest provider of defence weapons.
During his prepared speech to the Australia India Institute, O’Farrell said that the “giant panda in the room” — a reference to China’s increasing aggression — had helped deepen the Australia-India relationship demonstrated by the revival of the Quad and the trade agreement the two countries signed on the weekend, ending more than a decade of deadlock.
“For me, the biggest indicator of how far the Australia-India relationship has come is simply how frank, frequent and trusting our interactions are with our counterparts,” he said.
“To put it starkly, the kinds of discussions we’re now able to have on sensitive issues were unheard of five years ago, certainly they were unheard of 10 years ago when we were in a world of strife over attacks on students in Australia.
“If and when issues arise we speak directly to each other as good friends do,” he said.
Singh agreed that the relationship held great cause for optimism and described the trade deal signed on the weekend as a “watershed moment” in the bilateral relationship.
“Given the shifting geostrategic and geoeconomic trends, it is imperative our two countries come together like we have never come before,” she said.
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