Ties between Australia and India are among the fastest growing and multifaceted. In an exclusive interview with India Review and Analysis, Australian High Commissioner to India Harinder Sidhu outlines some key drivers of this strategic relationship.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with INDIA REVIEW & ANALYSIS policy journal:
Q. Australia and India appear to have rediscovered each other in recent years. What led to this rediscovery?
A. This is the strongest the Australia-India relationship has been. It is surprising that we didn’t have a stronger relationship before. Our shared values, the way we look at the world, the fact we are both liberal democracies, that we both support open economies, we are both English-speaking countries, that we have common systems of governance, the liberty of individuals matter to us, principles of non-discrimination, human rights - we share all those things and we look at the world exactly the same way.
A few things have led to this shift– one is the geopolitical uncertainty in our region as power relationships shift in the Indo-Pacific. The second thing that has happened is a more activist Indian posture in terms of engaging with nations beyond its neighbourhood. And the third is the growth of the Indian diaspora in Australia. I think the Indian diaspora gives us some anchoring in terms of how we look at India and it does provide a really good foundation to help us gain interest in India.
In 2014, our two prime ministers signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which was very ambitious as it put in place all kinds of bilateral engagement, from defence exercises to strategic talks to personal exchanges to cyber security to counter terrorism.
When we signed that agreement in 2014, we could not have foreseen how far we could have come in such a short span. This is a function of the fact that in a world that is growing in uncertainty, those things that we had in common for so long, that we take for granted, are suddenly huge strategic assets and so it becomes a connecting point between our two countries. And I think that is what brought us together.
Q. Ambassador Peter Varghese’s report (An Economic Strategy for India) has outlined a clear vision. There are three pillars on which the strategy rests: geopolitical convergence, economic relations and people-to-people ties. How would you characterise progress on these fronts?
A. When we think about ties between countries, the economic relationship always leads and the strategic relationship follows. In India that is being inverted – the strategic relationship has led and the economic relationship is catching up. So, the Economic Strategy was written to address that gap between strategic and economic relations. And what we discovered when Mr Varghese started working on it was that Australians didn’t quite know how to approach the Indian economy.
Indian economy is different as there is no single point of demand and it is very diverse and, while there are opportunities, sometimes it is not immediately apparent to the Australian system. So, the Report does a fabulous job in saying that we should take India as it is, we shouldn’t pretend that it is the next China, we shouldn’t imagine that it is another Southeast Asian country - it is its own country, on its own merits. It provides a practical roadmap on how to engage with Indian economy for an Australian audience. The roadmap is built around focusing on priority states and priority sectors.
Q. Education is a sector that has been flagged as a major driver between the two countries. How do you see it developing?
A. There are four layers to this relationship. The first is the number of students going to Australia to study – those numbers are growing at really very rapid rates. We saw a 25 per cent growth between 2017 and 2018 and now we have just under 80,000 students studying in Australia. That makes Indians the second highest pool of students after Chinese students. The second layer is the Australian universities looking at deeper engagement with India and goes beyond student recruitment into building relationships between institutions. The University of Queensland just brought the largest delegation in its history of its most senior faculty to India. They have established a joint research academy with IIT Delhi and they will be working with IIT Delhi to produce joint PhDs between the two universities. Indian regulations still do not allow Australian universities to function out of India. We are hopeful that will change. We have launched another collaboration between La Trobe University and Amity University to provide shared education for the students. The third layer is skills and vocation training. That is one area where we want to work actively with the government in its intention to skill up. We have set up a consortium – one is working very well with the Kerala government. Australia is a world leader in vocational skilling. We have some of the best programs in the world and so the plan is to try to bring that here and share what we know with the Indian system.
The fourth element is the New Colombo Plan under which our government wants to take young Australian undergraduates and send them overseas for study or work experience, but only to Asian countries. The India program is the most popular, This year, we have over a thousand students coming to India across various places to undertake internships and study.
Q. The Indo-Pacific seems to be another driver of the growing partnership. How is Canberra looking at defence and security cooperation with New Delhi?
A. Australia has been using the term Indo-Pacific for a very long time. So, the Indo-Pacific for us describes how we see the world and it has been becoming evident in the last decade that India must be included in our strategic frame. The other thing that has happened is we are seeing a lot of change and uncertainty. We are not just talking about the United States or China, but Indonesia is rising and there are all these changes in the region. It isn’t a region where there is a single regional organisation which captures all those interests effectively. So what we started seeing is combination of mini laterals or combinations of small groupings or a web of regional engagements rather than single monolithic regional organisations.
Q. In this context is the Quad a viable option?
A. The Quad is one of a number of arrangements we have. There is also the Australia-India-Japan trilateral, the Australia-Japan-United States trilateral and several of these other arrangements. It is a grouping of countries that are like-minded, that share common concerns and common interests. It is a useful way of sharing perspectives and building confidence in different degrees.
Q. With much of the world caught up in bruising trade wars, what are the priority areas to strengthen bonds across the Ocean?
A. We have always been advocates of global trade and retaliatory trade measures can only lead to a downward spiral in bilateral relations. Raising tariff walls and protectionism is not good for the countries.
In India-Australia relations, apart from education and people to people ties, tourism is a major area of focus. The resources relationship is still very strong and that will continue to be the foundation stone of our economic relationship. More than half our exports to India are in the resources sector. The mining equipment technology services is a very strong sector of business engagement between the countries and a big driver of investment. We are opening a consulate general in Kolkata. As India grows, Australia is well placed to partner with India to improve the efficiency, productivity and safety of Indian mining. The other area is agriculture and agri-business. There is much we can work together in improving productivity of Indian farms and dairy cattle and also in the agricultural market itself – by finding ways to smooth the volatility of supply and price. Australia can get food from farm to plate with virtually zero wastage – imagine what that can do to India’s food security.
Q. As someone whose ancestry is traced to India, what has your tenure been like and has it helped in pushing priority areas of your agenda?
A. It’s been three years since I came to India. The tempo of activity in every field that I can point to is much higher than three years ago. In the security field, we have had working groups and exchanges on every conceivable topic. We have had our second round of 2+2 meeting, we have had several rounds of trilateral dialogues with Japan, we have had bilateral naval exercises and we have also introduced army and air force exercises. In the economic sphere, we have gone from Australian companies saying India is out there, we should do something, to how do we get into India. The numbers of Indian students continue to grow, tourism is growing and there is discussion about increasing the number of direct flights. We are seeing greater cultural interest – we have just launched the Australian Fest which will run for six months till the end of March and I have been amazed at the response we have had.