Many years ago, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to study overseas. I was tremendously exhilarated at the thought of studying at the world’s oldest English-speaking university and spending time in one of the cradles of Western civilisation – but some instinct said that I shouldn’t travel straight from Australia to England, and fly right over the most significant country on the way; itself a home of civilisation, yet with spiritual links to my own; via much history in common, a shared passion for literature and sport, and a shared commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

So I landed in Mumbai and travelled by train and bus to Udaipur, to Delhi, to Kashmir, and then to Bihar where I spent two months with Australian Jesuits based in Hazaribagh, Daltonganj and Bokaro Steel City, including time as a teachers’ aide in schools and on missions to the Adivasi hill tribes. It was a formative time in my life and left me with a lasting appreciation of India’s great strength and vast potential. I’ve only had one subsequent visit – I was actually the first counterpart to visit Prime Minister Modi after his election in 2014 – but have been certain, ever since that first trip, 38 years ago, that India was a force for good and that engagement with India would improve our region and our world.

It stands to reason that a free Indo-Pacific depends on the countries of this region being free and open. Obviously, the best way to advance that great goal is to deepen the partnership between the Indo-Pacific’s longest-standing democracies, the countries that are already most free and most open, and have the capacity to help and inspire others: namely India, the world’s largest democracy and one of its most resilient, now with the confidence to match its status; the United States, the greatest defender of democracy, and the country the world still looks-to-first for help in time of trouble; Japan, for decades an exemplary global citizen, since learning the harshest lesson about the alternatives to democracy; and Australia, one of the first to adopt so many of the features of modern democracy, such as universal suffrage and votes for women, and a reliable friend in good times and bad.

As prime minister, I was pleased to begin the rehabilitation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that had been scuttled by my predecessor in 2008: by deepening security co-operation with Japan; and especially by renewing the nuclear understanding between Australia and India, and accelerating the security co-operation with India that had largely stalled. All my successors have built on this. Because the closer the understanding and the deeper the cooperation between the four most significant Indo-Pacific democracies, the more free and more open our region inevitably will be. Accompanying the revived “Quad”, there have been more naval exercises involving India, the United States, Japan and Australia; plus Indian naval deployments through the South China Sea under its Look East policy.

To be effective, though, a security dialogue should be based on something more than a common commitment to a rules-based global order and a common anxiety about the challenges to it. It should be based on the deepest possible engagement between the countries that respect their own citizens enough to let them vote to change the government. That means so much more than just extensive contact between senior officials dealing with national security. It means more trade, more investment, more scientific and cultural and sports exchanges, and more travel, along with the-opportunities-that-brings for our peoples freely to encounter each other in their own streets, workplaces, educational institutions, and homes. It goes without saying that this should be relatively easy between countries with very similar values, and comparable systems of government and administration, and especially between those that can readily speak each other’s language.

To put it simply, a partnership between two democracies such as India and Australia should be far easier to build than one between Australia and a one-party communist state like China. Perhaps this is why the relationship between Australian and India, until recently, has largely been taken for granted; while that with China has been carefully cultivated by all governments and assiduously fostered by all prime ministers since Bob Hawke (who at the time of his death had made over 100 trips to China).

China is now Australia’s largest trading partner by far and our largest source of overseas students – and has been for well over a decade. About a half a million Australians were born in China and more than a million Australians have Chinese ancestry. But if Australia’s links with China could so explode from next-to-nothing in scarcely 40 years, how much greater should the potential be to develop even-bigger links, even-faster with the emerging democratic superpower of Asia?

Interestingly, over much the same period, our dealings with India have also increased substantially, so that India is now our fifth biggest trade partner and our second largest source of overseas students; and there are now approaching a million Australians with Indian ancestry. The difference is that Australia’s burgeoning relationship with India has had only intermittent official drive. Between 1986 and 2014, there were no Indian prime ministerial visits to Australia and only four Australian prime ministerial visits to India. Compared to its passion for China, Australian officialdom has approached the relationship with India with what can only be described as benign neglect.

While still keeping up the China relationship, it was this relationship with India that my government was so determined to accelerate: through the establishment of the New (two way street) Colombo Plan, to take Australian students to Asia, as well as Asian students to Australia; the establishment of the Australia-India Institute at Melbourne University; the revitalisation of the Australia-India CEO Forum, and the enhanced security cooperation now formalised through an annual meeting of defence and foreign affairs department heads. As well, my government returned the Shivas that had been stolen by a rogue art dealer. And I’m keen to make fostering this relationship my personal mission in post-parliamentary life.

It’s a real pity that there was no prime ministerial visit to India in 2015 that could have sealed the free trade deal that Modi-ji and I had pledged to complete within a year – but perhaps this is something that Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison might return to in their discussions here in Delhi in February. It would be the most obvious way to demonstrate our countries’ commitment to each other.

Of course, there’s some apprehension that trade deals might put domestic industries or wage rates at risk – and there’s extra hesitation about a China-led regional FTA – but there’s little doubt that Australian food exports and resource exports, and Australian educators and trainers and engineers based here, rather than in Melbourne or Sydney, could be very important as hundreds-more-millions of Indians transition from the third world to the middle class. For instance, why should Indonesian coal, but not cleaner Australian coal, come to India without a 5 per cent tariff, thanks to an Indian FTA with ASEAN but not with us? This is just a needless tax on Indian consumers.

I’m deeply sorry that the now-finally-underway Adani mine in Queensland has faced so much activist-sabotage, given the jobs it’s promised to Australians and the reliable and affordable power it’s promised to tens of millions of Indians. But with more of our officials invested in a stronger economic partnership, even one as-yet-still-falling-short of a formal free trade deal, there should be more mines like Adani to power India’s future prosperity.

Even now, though, Australian officialdom seems unnecessarily cautious about the potential of the Australia-India relationship. The otherwise-excellent official report on Australia’s economic strategy with India to 2035 goes out of its way to stress that India, quote, “is not the next China”. A throw-away line perhaps; but why not; given that, in 40 years, India’s GDP has more than quadrupled; it’s been the world’s fastest growing big economy for the past five years; and more than 500 million Indians now have un-censored, un-monitored smart phones connecting them to the formal market economy?

If the 1.3 billion Indians in India could achieve like the one million Indians in Australia, India would amaze the world. I suppose the same might be said of the Chinese – except that the government of a one party state would never let them.

We might be grateful that India will not be the next China, politically. But why would anyone, especially India’s friends, be so sure that India won’t be the next China, economically? Why should Australian officials think that what one country of a billion people could achieve under the dictatorship of the proletariat is impossible in another that has the blessings of democracy, the rule of law and the English language? Unless, of course, they’re closet admirers of a command-market-economy, regard the Chinese as somehow superior to everyone else, or – most likely – don’t want to admit that Australia might have put too many eggs into the China basket.

Surely it can’t be harder for an Australian company to do business in India than, for instance, it’s turned out to be for Adani to do business in Australia; and if Indians have been prepared to persist with us, surely Australians should have no-less-fortitude in returning the favour.

In my time as PM, China formally upgraded its relationship with Australia to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, one of eleven. I was keen have the strongest possible links with China consistent with our values, and our military alliances revolving around the United States. Hence, my government swiftly finalised the most thorough-going trade deal that China had with anyone and the only one it had with a G20 country; we spent well over $100 million in the search for the 150 Chinese people amongst those lost on board Flight MH370; and we agreed to join the Chinese-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, once governance rules corresponding to those for other world bodies had been put in place.

But we didn’t finalise the extradition treaty begun under the Howard government – how could we with a country where the courts are instruments of the ruling party? And we flew military aircraft through China’s unilaterally-declared air defence zone over disputed islands. As well, in my time, Australia started to lift military spending to 2 per cent of GDP and began a naval build up in recognition of the darkening strategic dynamic in our region – that’s only worsened since.

The often-glossed-over reality is that it’s hard for Australia to be a meaningful strategic partner to a country that thinks it can bully its neighbours on the basis of confected territorial claims, that it refuses to submit to arbitration, and tries to resolve unilaterally in its favour. It’s hard for any country to be other than a client, or a strategic competitor, with a country that still regards itself as the “middle kingdom” and that has now dropped the mask of hiding its strength and biding its time.

Especially if China dumps “one-country, two-systems” for Hong Kong and becomes more belligerent with Taiwan, but even if it just vigorously prosecutes its territorial claims against countries like India and Japan, it’s hard to see relations with China rising much above the level of a “cold peace” any time soon.

In Washington, the long interlude of cautious engagement with China seems well-and-truly over and to have been replaced by a bi-partisan policy of careful “constrainment”. President Trump’s big tariff hikes on Chinese imports could just be designed to improve America’s trade balance and reduce intellectual theft. But they might also presage a move to take China out of the US supply chain, to minimise China’s integration into the world economy, and to reduce US vulnerability to Chinese economic pressure. If so, this has to be a massive opportunity for India, provided it maintains the “tilt to the West” that I suspect is its most natural preference.

As for Australia, of course we will continue to offer China the food and resource security it craves and to share our thinking on what makes an economy more prosperous and a society more humane, because that’s in everyone’s interest. But we should be very cautious about the kind of technical engagement that leaves us relatively weaker and China relatively stronger.

Again, this is where India comes in. My instinct is that, 50 years hence, India will be much more prosperous and no less democratic; every bit as strong as China, in fact, but far less overbearing. I hope that Australia will be a key partner in India’s rise. A world with two democratic superpowers, not just one, will be more free, more open, more prosperous and ultimately fairer to everyone – because that’s the way countries are (even superpowers) when they have to take all their citizens seriously.