Monday, January 12, 2015

Is this the end of Australia and India's mutual neglect?

At a time of economic uncertainty, growing belligerence from Beijing and a visible warming of relations between Washington and New Delhi, Australia is recognising the benefits of its proximity to India.

The November 2014 visit to Australia by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a success, even by the most conservative analysis. It had all the ingredients to transform a moribund relationship into a genuine strategic partnership.  Even the vocabulary underwent a shift, from the three "C"s – Commonwealth, cricket and curry – to the three "E"s of the economy, energy and education.

However, it's now approaching two months since the visit and it is time to begin translating theFramework for Security Co-operation agreed to during the visit into concrete and visible results. That process could begin when Australia's Ministerfor Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, leads a 300-strong delegation to India for the Australian Business Week from Monday (January 12).

While it is speculated that, during the visit, a major contract for the import of gas from Australia will be signed, the visit offers several other possibilities.


Energy will, undoubtedly, remain a key interest area for India. With the uranium sale issue resolved, it would be useful to finalise the technical procedures to allow uranium shipments to start.

Modi's flagship Make in India manufacturing campaign opens the way for Australian vocational education institutions to train Indians to manufacture to Australian standards.

For TAFE and the Australian vocational education and training sector, this is a unique opportunity to tap into the Indian market by establishing campuses in India. This would also provide an opportunity for  Australian business and industry to directly participate in India's quest for development. This could include theuse of new technology to upgrade existing manufacturing platforms.

Present indications are that differences have been ironed out and the Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement will be finalised for signature by the end of March.

This is a major development, as Australia would become the first country with which India, under Modi, has signed an embracing trade pact.This agreement is expected to substantially boost two-way trade and investment.

At the Australian Business Week summit, both sides would also have the opportunity to explore various verticals that could enhance existing commercial relationships and create new opportunities, including joint ventures.

Early conclusion of discussions on trade in services, including a Social Security Agreement, would further consolidate bilateral trade and investment. 

In the area of soft power diplomacy, efforts like the Australia India Youth Dialogue,scheduled to be held later this month, provides an ideal platform for dialogue and networking among young Indians and Australians.

Similarly, the role of the Australia India Institute needs to be revisited to guard against it being reduced to an academic centre. The institute can legitimately emerge as the effective bridge between New Delhi and Canberra to substantively raise the quality of dialogue and co-operation. Projects like the India Vision Institute, a co-operative venture between the Brien Holden Vision Centre and the L V Prasad Eye Institute that provides eye care to the poor, need support. .

Setting up a Chair of Australian Studies at an Indian university would raise appreciation of Australian writing and research.

This year, India will organise a cultural program in Australia that is expected to go beyond performing and visual arts and help promote a better idea of contemporary and classical India. Such efforts add value and are an effective public diplomacy initiative.

Simultaneously, efforts need to be initiated, as agreed to in the joint statement on the Framework for Security Co-operation, to craft a strategic defence and security partnership that not only includes regular ministerial-level dialogue but also consultations between the chiefs of armed forces, including joint military, air force and naval exercises. Joint patrolling and surveillance in the Pacific and co-operation in the Indian Ocean will rightly raise the quality of the relationship.

After almost 30 years, perhaps Indians and Australians will see the end of mutual neglect.

Amit Dasgupta was the Indian Consul General in Sydney from February 2009 to June 2012.


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