Unlike the Indo-Australian rivalry on the cricket pitch that made headlines for dubious reasons, the bilateral dialogue between both countries is now keenly watched for larger strategic implications. Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull on a four-day state visit to India arrived at New Delhi on 9thApril. Indo-Australian common interests are famously summarized by three aspects-Common wealth, Cricket, and Curry. Besides, Australia of late has become a very significant partner for India becoming the second most favorite destination for education after the US. Australia is also home for a sizeable chunk of influential Indian Diaspora.
Turnbull’s visit comes at a time when India is trying to change its “geopolitical vocabulary.” India for long preferred to remain a meek, unassuming regional partner. Despite a scope for expansive engagement in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal region, India failed to proactively capitalize on its unique geographical positioning. Though it ambitiously carved out various doctrines to build bridges with different nations, concrete actions to ramp up cooperation were ill coordinated. Rapid geopolitical fluxes and widening economic global foot print has finally motivated India to realign and rejuvenate Indo-Pacific cooperation. The idea of deepening cooperation in Indo-Pacific region has been in vogue for over a decade. But for long Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean were considered as two different worlds. The latitude of maritime cooperation and their larger strategic implications were undervalued. Modi embraced the lexicon of Indo-Pacific cooperation with new enthusiasm. Unlike Tony Abbott who pushed for a free trade agreement in 2014, Malcom Turnbull was not very particular about economic cooperation. Australia wary of increasingly assertive China and brow-beaten by unpredictable and illogical American decisions is now keen on heralding a new cooperation with India. Wavered by the geopolitical jostling, Australia aspires to engage with “liberal-minded democracies”, preferably India. Countries in the Indo-Pacific region ruffled by inimitable rise of China are now depending on India to play a role in regional stability.
Australia enjoys trade surplus with China who over time has become its mainstay. But denigration of human rights, ruthless rejection of international tribunal ruling, needless invocation of nationalism by Chinese students on Australian campuses are becoming bit too much for Australia to handle. Constant bullying of China through its mouth piece every time Australia sides with American (which has been its ally since World War II) is stifling Australia’s prospective engagement with China. Moreover, imposition of trade sanctions and blocking South Korea from doing business for allowing the deployment of anti-Missile system THAAD and its failure to curb the nuclear proliferation activities of North Korea, its closest ally have made Australia skeptical of China. Incidentally Turnbull’s visit to India comes at a time India is vigorously pursuing “Act East” Policy and consolidating ties with partners in Pacific region. Like India, Australia is reeling under the expansive maritime spread of China. With economic influence China steadily brought the islands in Oceania under its ambit. Simultaneously through the OBOR, China expanded its foot print in Indian Ocean and is on verge of establishing string of pearls. As a result, both India and Australia, are now developing islands- Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Cocos (Keeling) islands respectively for strategic purposes (1).
While Modi and Turnbull’s metro ride and selfie-moment reflected fledging bonhomie, a photo on the stairs of Akshardham temple neatly summed up Modi’s compelling soft power articulation. Malcom Turnbull on his first visit to India met President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice-President Hamid Ansari and travelled to Mumbai to meet business delegation. He convened a “strategic roundtable” with Indian intellectuals- former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon, analyst Ashok Malik, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of Centre for Policy Research.
India and Australia share many commonalities-both are democratic, multi-cultural, and secular. Both leaders in the joint statement reaffirmed faith in the above-mentioned attributes and reiterated importance of peace, prosperity and security in the region and underscored the importance of respecting United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Two sides agreed to deepen bilateral defence and security cooperation; promote maritime safety and security; counter terrorism cooperation. Both leaders resolved to strengthen the trilateral cooperation and dialogue among Australia, India, and Japan; agreed to work together through various multilateral institutions like G20, EAS (East Asia Summit), IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) and UN. Australia extended support for India’s permanent membership at expanded UNSC and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation).
India, currently the fastest growing economy with a population of 1.25 billion and growing middle class has a huge potential for economic growth. Business firms across the world are interested in investing in India. Australia is also keen on gaining from the burgeoning market size of India. As of 2015, bilateral trade stands at $20 billion which is far below the potential. After the breakdown of TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), Australia began to bet on RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) which features India. India and Australia in 2014 set a deadline for ratification of CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) or the Australia-India FTA (Free Trade Agreement) initiated by Tony Abbott in 2014. But unfortunately, negotiations remained inconclusive and no progress was made in this direction by Turnbull. India and Australia signed the civil nuclear agreement in 2014 which came into force in 2015. A Bill on Civil Nuclear Transfers to India was passed by both houses of Australia in 2016. Turnbull now announced that Uranium will be exported to India at the earliest. Leaders witnessed exchange of 6 MoU’s. These include cooperation in combating international terrorism, health and medicine, sports, environment and climate, civil aviation security and space technology.
The key focus areas of cooperation between both countries have been-economic, knowledge and strategic partnership. In his current visit, Turnbull has extensively focused on deepening the strategic partnership and resisted India’s push to relax immigration norms. Even as no fresh impetus was given to economic cooperation, Australia offered certain trade concessions to China to promote bilateral trade. India was keen on extracting similar concessions but offered to give less. Both sides hence failed to reach a mutually agreeable solution. As of now, Indo-Australian relationship is buttressed by strategic maritime cooperation.
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