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Pacific overtures

Pacific overtures
One might not have expected the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to be so quick in responding to the hospitality he received in India last month. In fact the G20 summit slated in Brisbane middle of next month has given this opportunity. Abbott is preparing to lay the red carpet for the Indian Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardass Modi.

Abbott’s special welcome is likely to be for three visiting world leaders – Indian Prime Minister Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and British Prime Minister David Cameron. All these three leaders are slated to address the joint session of the Australian Parliament. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao addressed Australian parliament in 2003 and so did the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

After Abbott took over, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the joint session of Australian Parliament in July 8, 2014. But this will be the first occasion for an Indian Prime Minister to address the Australian Parliament. This shows the growing recognition and acceptance of India. Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia since Rajiv Gandhi who came to see Bob Hawke in 1986. It seems that India-Australia relations are warming up and both the countries need each other in the geopolitics of Asia-Pacific region.

Modi’s forthcoming visit to Australia is likely to be significant. Former Prime Minister  Manmohan Singh deliberately missed the bus to Australia by declining to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth hosted by Julia Gillard in 2011 which many analysts believed was because the Labour government reversed John Howard’s decision to allow uranium exports to India. Earlier former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declined to attend the CHOGM meeting hosted by Howard in Coolum in 2002 which many viewed as a consequence of Canberra overreacting to India’s nuclear tests in 1998. All eyes would now be on Modi in Australia.

But Australia is equally conscious of keeping China in good humour. It declined to join the India-US-Japan Trilateral, which is being upgraded to the level of foreign ministers, at the instance of Beijing. But Abbott has agreed for a first bilateral naval exercise with India scheduled in 2015. Both the countries will join together in the commemoration of 100 years of the First World War in which soldiers of both the countries fought side by side.

Australia has supported India’s full membership of four international export control regimes – Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Agreement and Australia Group and also membership of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Canberra has assured to be a long-term uranium supplier to India and cooperate in production of radio isotopes and nuclear safety. Abbott termed this nuke handshake as ‘a sign of the mutual trust and confidence that our two countries have in each other’

Abbott is appreciative of India’s Look East Policy and has recognised the importance of India as a ‘valuable partner’ in Asia-Pacific region. He has also lauded Modi’s recent visit to Japan and termed the outcome as ‘successful’. He termed the geopolitical importance of Asia-Pacific saying ‘So as economic weight shifts to the Indo-Pacific region, the strategic balance moves too.’

Though Abbott is conscious of the importance of Asia-Pacific region, it is ready to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit over Russia’s role in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17, in which 38 Australians lost their lives. Abbott has taken a strong personal interest in the MH17 disaster, in which 298 people were killed, when Russian-backed separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine.

Along with the US, Russia is a key player in the region. The relationship between NATO powers and Russia has turned sour over the latter taking over Crimea. The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 has added to the problem. Putin’s assertive nature is not much appreciated by the West. Kiev and the West have accused Moscow-backed separatists of shooting down the plane with a surface-to-air BUK missile supplied by Russia. Moscow denies the charge and has pointed the finger back at Kiev. Australia has demanded that Russia cooperate with the criminal investigation and help in booking the culprits to justice.

There are obvious reasons why Australia needs India more. India is already Australia’s fifth-largest export market. Australia wants the bilateral trade to grow to its full potential which is now stagnating at only $15 billion. Further, Australia is eager to conclude the negotiations on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India by 2016 which would boost bilateral trade and investment.  At present Indian investment in Australia is about $11 billion whereas Australian investment in India is $600 million. In fact, Australia sees massive opportunity for investments in India with Modi’s call for ‘Make in India’.

India too is interested in investing in resource rich Australia. Leading Indian investors like Sterlite Industries and Aditya Birla group are in copper mines while Asian Paints and Reliance are in uranium exploration. Australia has massive reserves of uranium, gold, copper, zinc among other minerals and its coal feeds power plants in India.  In fact, Australian coal, iron ore and gas has powered the economic transformations of Japan, Korea and China.

Australia had worked over three decades to boost its bilateral trade with China to the level of $150 billion. While consolidating its gains there, Australia now wants to tap the untapped potential in bilateral trade with India.

Both the countries are looking forward for finalisation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in the Indo-Pacific region. At present Australia is the chair of Indian Ocean Rim Association. The region is important and concerns for maritime security remain vital as trade grows. This apart, Australia has come to the rescue of Modi’s dream project of cleaning river Ganga by signing an agreement on water management.

Human resources development is an area of India’s interest. There is a 450,000-strong Indian
community in Australia and 36,000 Indian students are pursuing their study there, particularly in vocation education. India and Australia have also agreed for cooperation in vocational education and training. Australia’s New Colombo Plan will now facilitate Australian students to pursue their studies in India. In all, there is a good scope for giving a big boost to India-Australia relations during PM’s visit.
Ashok B Sharma

Ashok B Sharma

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