The sixth meeting of the Australia-India Education Council (AIEC) took place at Western Sydney University on Monday last. AIEC is a unique platform in India-Australia partnership for ministerial engagement on policy and operational issues across the education sectors in both countries. In addition to deepening and widening this collaboration, it also marked the growing ties between the two countries, which are increasingly bonding in view of the convergence of their concerns in various sectors, especially in security. Both countries face a common threat posed by a belligerent and expansionist China.
The meeting was co-chaired by Union Education & Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and his counterpart Jason Clare, as per procedure, including representatives from government, academia and industry. The forgoing premise of India-Australia bilateralism was endorsed by Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal earlier on while addressing the students of New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney, “I believe that such partnerships are important for the world as we increase our strategic engagement between Australia and India. Education will act as a bridge between the two countries; it has always been an important element of our partnership”.
Carrying on with the same spirit, Pradhan, who is on a four-day visit, at the time of writing to Australia, said, “AIEC is a highly effective forum to further advance ties and boost engagements in skill development, in education and in research priorities.”
In the education summit, the two ministers agreed to establish a working group on trans-national education for the sake of increasing institutional partnerships and exploring new opportunities for collaborations between universities of both the countries. Pradhan called on the Australian universities and skill-building institutions to set up campuses in India and for collaborating with their Indian counterparts on other areas. The meeting focussed on enhancing “bilateral cooperation in education, skill development, research collaborations, innovation and entrepreneurship.” It was also agreed to offer dual degree programmes in order to encourage two-way student mobility and enhance people-to-people linkages.
The Australian leadership in education had expressed their wish to see “Australian students flocking to India to get educated”. The proposed dual degree will enable a student, Australian or Indian, to do a part of the degree in either country. This will also necessitate close formal collaboration between the universities. In particular, Pradhan invited collaboration with the digital university and Gati Shakti University set up in India. Both countries can offer joint skill certifications in areas like mining and logistics management. The offer fits into the Government of India’s initiative in setting up campuses of foreign universities in India. The University Grants Commission has constituted a committee to develop the modalities and facilitate the process.
The aforesaid developments in education sector signify the growing closeness between India and Australia. Both countries have historical, structural commonalities. Both are strong, vibrant, secular and plural democracies. They share multiple ties – political, economic, security, education, lingual and sporting. Both countries were part of the British empire and are currently members of the Commonwealth. Since 2008, Australia is the Observer in SAARC. More important, Australia and India are active members of the Quad.
India-Australia relations go way back to the colonial times when the Consulate General of India was first opened in Sydney in 1944; India’s first High Commission to Australia was appointed in 1945. Likewise, the first Australia’s High Commissioner came to India in March 1944. The Australian Prime Minister, after the independence of the country in 1950, Robert Menzies had supported Republic of India admission into the Commonwealth. As of now, Australia has placed India at the forefront of its international partnerships.
In 2009, a ‘strategic partnership’ was set up between the two countries and the relations have been being growing ever since. In 2013, A.K. Antony of the Congress Party became the first-ever Indian Defence Minister to visit Australia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in November 2014 a few months after he took over the office. This was followed by the visit of former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Bligh Turnbull to New Delhi and Mumbai in April 2017.
Like AIEC, Australia-India Council (AIC) is a larger forum established on 21 May 1992 on the advice of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The Council came up following a thorough inquiry into various aspects of India-Australia relations. AIC has a broad spectrum covering entire gamut of relations between two countries. AIC also raises awareness about each other and promotes exchanges between two countries. Having talked a bit about the latest developments in educational collaboration in the wake of the India’s Minister for Education visiting Australia, it is in order that we look at few other sectors.
Perhaps the front-running sector is defence relationship which is guided by four major agreements: The 2006 Memorandum on defence cooperation; the 2009 joint declaration on security cooperation and the 2014 bilateral Framework for Security Cooperation; and the 2020 Australian-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The cooperation consists of strategic dialogues, period inter-actions between respective services, staff and training exchanges. In military partnership, the cooperation is quite comprehensive involving dialogues, coordination, information exchanges including on third countries, military exercises in air, water and on the ground, defence commerce and technical cooperation.
In military, a joint naval exercise called AUSINDEX is conducted between India and Australia every year starting from September 2015 at Visakhapatnam, India. The objective of this exercise is to strengthen and enhance mutual cooperation and inter-operability between the Indian Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. Australia also participated in the Malabar exercise which is an annual tri-lateral naval exercise between the India, USA and Japan.
The people-to-people contact could be traced to the colonial period when the British East India Company shifted Indian workers and labourers from the Indian Sub-continent to Australia. Presently, out of Australia’s 24 million people, about half-a-million are of Indian origin. As of 2017, more than 60,000 students from India are studying in Australia. More than two lakh Indians visit Australia every year. The fastest-growing foreign language in Australia is Punjabi. Notably, India is now the third largest source of immigrants to Australia after the UK and New Zealand, and the second largest source of skilled professionals.
In economic relations, India is Australia’s largest export market for gold and chick-peas, the second largest market for coal and copper ores and the third largest market for lead and wool. Indian exports to Australia consist largely of refined petroleum, outsourcing services, pulse, gems, jewellery and medicaments. Significantly, in 2007, Australia supplied Uranium to India, which went a long way towards strengthening the relationship. Note that this was the first case where Australia was supplying Uranium to a country that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Negotiations for a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement started in 2001 which is somewhat deadlocked. This should materialise. India and Australia should build a strong and formidable partnership as former allies in view of common stakes in the region. It is up to the leadership in both countries and vibrant track-two diplomacy.