Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was in India on a four-day visit last week. His meetings and exchanges in Gujarat, Mumbai and Delhi sought to deepen the economic and security ties between the two countries. The significance of his visit is manifested in his powerful tweet, “my visit to India reflects my government’s commitment to place India at the centre of Australia’s approach to India-Pacific and beyond”. No doubt, the India-Australia bilateralism is currently at its best. Again, this is strongly endorsed by Albanese, “there has been no point in the histories of both countries where we have had such strong strategic alignment”.
It is, however, important to remember that the relations were not so close until recently. India had under-valued the importance of ties with Australia for her economic interests. Well, this has been an inexplicably hurtful trend in India’s foreign policy – a mismatch between economy and diplomacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in 2014 which gave a push to the relations between the two countries. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit after three decades of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Australia in 1986. The neglect of expanding relations has been corrected. New Delhi’s warmth and reciprocation to Australia can be seen in the visit of 10 Union Ministers to Australia in one year i.e. 2022.
Likewise, Australia has also been in and out of alliances and activities involving India, for instance Quad and Malabar Exercise. Australian’s stance towards India and others was influenced by their changing equation with China. That is, however, history. Both countries now realise the common danger to their interests posed by China who is challenging the supremacy of United States, the leading ally of Australia. At the same time, India and the US relations are also improving slowly but certainly. As their Prime Minister said, “Australians consider India as a friend”. I had the opportunity of hosting a delegation of Australian legislators from Albanese’s party, the Labour Party. When I asked the visiting delegation the prime purpose of their visit, they said, “We are here to make contacts with our comrades as the relations between two countries at a governmental level are becoming closer”. The Labour Party was then in Opposition.
The other variable to factor in is the slow but certain rise of India as a world economic power. Many observers and experts predict the inevitable decline of China and rise of India as economic powers. Given the size of India’s demography and nature of its economy, politics and society, India is bound to remain a market of millions and a source of global supply chain. Unlike China,
Indians are lot closer to things they need, not as dependent on the external market as China has been. Indians can come up with solutions to the problems they face. In a couple of decades, India will be the biggest population in the age group of 40-65, and remain so for at 50 least years. That is huge. Australians recognise this. India is the first stop out of Persian Gulf for any investor and trader. New Delhi also realises that Australia is now friendlier than it is to China. New Delhi can rely on food and mineral supplies from resource-rich Australia.
To be specific, as India seeks to emerge as an alternative supply chain, it can lean on Australia for the critical minerals essential to produce stuff like mobile phones, flat screen monitors, wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars etc. Australia is in possession of rare-earth material which is necessary for producing goods which could not be done otherwise. While green energy is being developed across the world, the conventional energies like coal are critical for industrial development. India faces short supplies of coal which is being procured from Australia. Thus, the economic complementarities between India and Australia are enormous, in addition to the natural similarities and synergies in political and social sector.
Let us scan the present scope of ties between India and Australia. Albanese suggested in a pre-visit press conference in Canberra that the bilateralism with India consisted of three sectors – cultural ties, economic relations and national security. He said, “We are investing in building capacities and in relationship covering these sectors”. Albanese added that, his delegation consisting of 34 companies on clean energy and 27 CEOs, leaders of universities and institutes. This is also reflected in the sizeable Indian Diaspora in Australia including sixty thousand students by the end of 2022.
The cultural ties not only relate to cricket but are sought to be expanded to many other areas. Australia nicely fits into India’s efforts to modernise its higher education under the New Education Policy. It has decided to set up two universities in Gujarat’s Gift City; Deakins University has signed an agreement to set up a physical campus. Both are members of the Commonwealth, share democratic traditions, the English language, social-cultural fabric and extended neighbourhood. The economic exchanges will be mainly on energy sector, particularly the solar.
To boost the economic ties, negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) were initiated in May 2011; nine-rounds had happened until 2016 when they got suspended pending the outcome of multilateral regional negotiations. In December 2022, an Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement was initiated which will lead to the signing of CECA. Albanese expressed his strong desire to have this agreement signed covering at least the main principles by the end of the year. This will be the fulcrum of economic relations.
On security ties, the exchanges have expanded enormously. Australia has rejoined the Malabar Exercise and will host it for the first time this year. Remember, Malabar Exercise was initiated between the navies of India and US in 1992, later joined by Japan and Australia, increasing inter-operability between the naval forces. Likewise, India will participate in Talisman Sabre Exercise which began in 2005 between the Australia and US. Later Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea and United Kingdom joined it. Also, India and Australia have begun maritime patrol and aircraft deployment in each other’s territory. In November last year, a complex exercise called ‘India-Pacific Endeavour and Exercise Austrahind’ has also taken place. Under the initiative of Prime Minister Modi, the inaugural Australia-India General Rawat Defence Officers Exchange Programme is currently taking place in India. This pioneering exchange programme ensures that the defence personal develop the familiarity and trust that underpins a close and a long-lasting relationship.
Anthony Albanese’s visit has demonstrated the willingness of both the countries to continue to come closer. Both countries tried their best to adjust their policies towards China and seem to have failed in the face of growing expansionism and belligerence from Beijing. It is in fitness of things that they lean on each other to counter the common threat. The growing friendship between India and Australia will do a world of good to both countries and will contribute to the peace and security in the India-Pacific and beyond. —INFA