By Amit Dasgupta*
One of the diplomatic puzzles that intrigue most foreign policy analysts is the significant lack of depth in India-Australia relations. For years, geography and history were seen as the main culprits. For New Delhi, Australia was simply too far away and for Canberra, India was simply not like-minded.
A couple of Prime Ministers did try. John Howard visited India twice and injected a sense of new found vigour in the relationship. Rajiv Gandhi had an excellent visit, too. But the bonhomie did not last. History and geography once again intervened, till PM Modi arrived on Australian shores and literally dispensed with the baggage of the past several decades.
Unfortunately, a significant overhauling in relations cannot be achieved only through the efforts of Prime Ministers. It requires the visible commitment and participation of multiple stake-holders. Despite what was widely seen as a game changer visit by PM Modi to Australia, there is real danger of the relationship failing to realize its true potential.
This would be a real shame because of the several areas of common interest that extend well beyond cricket. Both countries are democracies, though India is a more chaotic one but then, with over a billion people held together by the fabric of diversity, it is only understandable. There are several shared values and aspirations, particularly multiculturalism. Additionally, contemporary Australia is the strongest economy in the world and India has earned the distinction of being the fastest growing.
Following PM Modi’s visit, there has been substantive improvement in matters related to strategic cooperation, especially defence and security. The imperative of real time exchange of information on anti-terror intelligence is now all the more pressing. Indeed, ISIS and other terror groups have emerged as the single biggest threat to our everyday biography. Without closer collaboration, there is the credible but unfortunate possibility that multiculturalism would stand threatened, as we start to become wary of the stranger and the outsider.
India and Australia have also agreed to cooperate on the Indian Ocean, which for long was referred to as ‘the ocean of neglect’ in so far as Canberra was concerned. This cooperation is good for both countries and for the countries in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, both countries have pragmatically approached the Pacific and not been overly swayed by Washington’s Asia pivot policy, which is clearly aimed at isolating Beijing. Distancing China is neither in Canberra’s interest nor indeed, in New Delhi’s.
That having been said, cooperation has been low-key and barely visible.
Take trade and investment, for instance. There were hopes that the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) would dramatically impact economic relations. Unfortunately, there have been slippages in timelines and both sides continue to be wary of opening up their markets to competition. Indian companies, long used to hanging on to the government’s apron strings, are fearful that global competition could threaten their existence. They have, consequently, opposed market access initiatives. Ease of doing business and the lack of clarity in tax legislation continue to be a serious deterrent, which the Indian Finance Minister Jaitley attempted to address in his recent budget presentation.
While Indian business has been reluctant – even dismissive – about the opportunities the Australian market offers because of its relatively small population size, Australian business has hardly fared better through its conservative and risk-averse attitude towards new markets, including one as large as India. Bilateral trade stands at a meager AUD 12 billion and most certainly, is a poor indicator of what might be possible and further, on the need to expand the trade and investment basket.
Indeed, with the new government in Delhi announcing a series of innovative programmes, such as, Make in India, Skilling India, Digital India, Smart Cities and others, which would strongly impact its developmental efforts, there was an expectation that Australian business and industry would take advantage of the opportunities through joint ventures and partnerships. Each of these programmes have components in which Australia has proven strengths, especially in the area of skilling. Unfortunately, there has been no forward surge, in this regard, from Australian business and industry.
Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s visit to Australia offers a genuine platform to lift the game and to take forward the strategic partnership that both governments committed themselves to when Prime Minister Modi visited Australia. Failure to do so would, yet again, pull us back into the abyss that confined us to the peripheral three Cs that Australians love to talk about – cricket, commonwealth and curry. It is time to change the vocabulary to the three Es – economy, education and energy. They, in fact, represent the core of a sustainable and robust relationship.
We cannot leave everything to Prime Ministers. To re-imagine our bilateral relations, all stakeholders need to participate and actively. It would be in the interest of the global community if the subcontinent and the continent start engaging more actively and urgently.
*Amb. Amit Dasgupta was the Indian Consul General in Sydney 2009-12 and is currently the head of SP Jain School of Global Management, Mumbai. He can be reached at: [email protected]