John Howard has discovered India after largely ignoring it for the past decade, as the ABC’s Graeme Dobell reported:

The Howard Government’s first Foreign Affairs White Paper in 1997 did not rank India as one of the states that “most substantially engage Australia”. And only six months after India announced itself as a nuclear weapons power with its bomb blasts in 1998, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department scrapped its separate South Asia and Indian Ocean branch as a budget measure.

The change in India’s significance is told through two multilateral moments.

Back in 1997, Australia was a leading player in shutting the door on India joining the Asia Pacific economic forum when APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) imposed a 10-year moratorium on new members. India thought it had been vetoed by a jaundiced Australia.

But by last year, Australia was slipping in to the new East Asia Summit on India’s diplomatic coattails. The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) hosts could not allow China to veto India attending the first summit. So admitting India – a geopolitical must these days – made it easier to invite two other non-East Asian states, Australia and New Zealand.

India no longer has to worry about its seat at the top table, and that change means John Howard is heading to New Delhi to light the way to the future, stress the past links, and quietly bury some elements of history.

It is also a belated recognition by Howard of a trade reality – India now buys more stuff from us than the very-often-visited UK – and, sadly, what looks like a little “me-tooism” in George Bush’s footsteps. In any event, Australian business is going along for the ride.

The problem for Australia is whether Howard is discovering George’s India, or Manmohan Singh’s. They are different animals. While the Australian press is concentrating on the trade story, the Hindustan Times, like the Malaysian media cited on Friday, is stressing the “strategic” word. The Indians know full well the games Bush is trying to play with them.

A thoughtful piece in Friday’s AFR about Asian relations with the US in general by Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, included a warning Howard and Co should heed:

Despite an affinity for Americans and American society, Indians are naturally suspicious of US geopolitical calculations, having been caught on the wrong side in the Cold War. They remember that Pakistan was once used as a card against India. They remember and resent how America treated China as a major power deserving respect during the Cold War, while treating India as a poor Third World basket case…

…The current honeymoon, reflected in the red carpet welcome given to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July and Bush’s visit to India this week, may or may not settle into a happy marriage.

While George Bush was goosing around with a cricket bat and tennis ball in Pakistan – and Imran Khan was under effective house arrest to prevent him protesting – the dean had a lesson there as well:

Pakistan was a key ally in the Cold War, facilitating the Sino-American rapprochement and leading Islamic resistance to Soviet influence in the Third World. Nonetheless, Pakistan was abruptly dropped from the ranks of US allies after the Cold War, ostensibly on the grounds of its undemocratic politics and poor human rights record. The Clinton administration withheld the delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft promised to Pakistan during the Cold War, and withheld the return of hundreds of millions of dollars of Pakistani payments for nearly six years…Pakistanis remain deeply wary of Americans. The recent American discovery of India as a “natural ally” has only aggravated this wariness.

It’s not all cricket-and-Washington’s-new-world-order on the sub-continent for John Howard. If ever Australia could benefit from independent foreign policy instead of branch office status, this is it.