Australia's Pivot to India
Black Inc., $32.99 pb, 253 pp
In April 1990, Australia’s high commissioner to New Delhi, Graham Feakes, was in the final year of a six-year posting. Still regarded as one of Australia’s finest diplomats, he had worked tirelessly to invigorate a relationship that had been allowed to drift aimlessly for decades. Under his watch, in 1986 Rajiv Gandhi made the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Australia in almost two decades. Bob Hawke reciprocated shortly afterwards. Ministerial commissions and senior level officials’ groups were established. Aid was set to increase.
Feakes was determined to leave on a high note, but on the morning of 24 April 1990 he was summoned to India’s Ministry of External Affairs for a humiliating dressing down over an ‘unfortunate and regrettable decision’ that threatened ‘the stability of the region’. At a time of heightened tension on the subcontinent and without seeking Feakes’s advice, Australia’s defence department had announced the sale of fifty decommissioned Mirage fighter jets to India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan. Indo-Australian relations went into a decade-long deep freeze. I remember the crisis vividly. As the High Commission’s press secretary, I was charged with the impossible task of putting a positive spin on a disastrous decision.