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Australia and India: Next steps in the comprehensive strategic partnership

Contrary to earlier expectations, the rise of China has not been peaceful, and Asia is facing the brunt of its aggressive policies, unjustified territorial claims, and policies aimed at cornering resources. India is currently facing multiple incursions from China on the Line of Actual Control on the Indo Chinese border. Australia is facing retaliation and pressure in trade through enhanced tariffs and anti-dumping measures for support of an independent assessment on the origins of the novel coronavirus and is still recovering from a vicious Chinese cyber-attack. China has aggressively moved to establish influence in the Western Pacific and there have been unconfirmed reports of China seeking bases in places like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. The quest for natural resources with total disregard for transparency and fair practices in the Chinese policies towards the Pacific Island States has raised alarm not only in Australia, New Zealand and the United States but across the region. Chinese ocean mapping activities and the presence of PLA naval vessels in the Indian ocean has increased noticeably in the last year. Australia and India have reiterated a common approach to a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo – Pacific which guarantees freedom of navigation and overflights. The desire for unimpeded commerce and a rules-based order is a necessary strategy. The Indo – Australian joint statements support cooperation in multilateral fora, the centrality of Asean, India’s Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the peaceful resolution of disputes as opposed to unilateral or coercive actions.

A number of steps need to be taken now by both partners for translating their agreements into reality. In the geo strategic sphere, besides their bilateral consultations, Australia and India will need to step up the plate to actively participate in meetings and consultations in the framework of the Quad and Quad plus, their ongoing coordination with Japan and Indonesia, and for exchanging views on Australia’s Pacific set up and India’s Forum for India – Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC). India will need to join the cooperative Blue Dot initiative, and pool in efforts with United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to come up with credible, transparent and alternate funding for projects in the Indo Pacific with Asean and the Pacific Island States in mind. They will need to work closely together through the Asean and East Asia Summit institutions, and for strengthening international institutions like the WHO. They will need to strengthen interoperability, share technological advancements in the defence and strategy spheres, and look for ways to complement each other. A Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement has been agreed upon, which will allow use of each other’s facilities, and increase interoperability of their defence forces. Australian participation in the Malabar exercises should now become a natural corollary. The defence research organisations of the two countries now need to focus on agreed areas of cooperation like advanced sensors, underwater and hypersonic technologies. Indian shipyards are keen to cooperate with Australian shipbuilding industries. India will gladly work with Australian entities on its Mars and Moon missions. Space situational activities, calibration and validation of satellite data, sharing of meteorology and oceanographic data and establishment of ground stations are already identified areas of collaboration but require concrete tie ups.

Ambassador Anil Wadhwa

The framework arrangement on cyber and cyber-enabled critical technology cooperation requires follow up. Australia can emerge as a reliable supplier for 21 out of 49 minerals identified by India’s critical minerals strategy and for India’s e-mobility programme. Diversification and expansion of the existing resources partnership through mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals will also require that the two countries collaborate on new technologies. In the light of India’s new mining policy, Australian companies need to scout for opportunities aggressively. India has a target of training 400 million youth by 2022 and the MOU signed during the virtual Summit on cooperation should be utilized by the Australian Vocational Education System for enhancing Australian presence in the areas of training curriculum, aligning Indian accreditation and assessment to global standards, improving trainer quality and conducting joint training workshops. A new collaborative agreement on water resources management, training and education, and for developing sustainable solutions for water and economic development and water recycling requires implementation through the identification of partners across the board in India. Opportunities identified by the leaders in immunology, development of vaccines, circular economy, surface coal gasification, waste to wealth processes can all be translated into action under the framework of a strengthened cooperation under the Australia India Scientific Reserve Fund (AISRF). A start up cooperative fund and a separate fund for enhancing collaboration in humanities between the two countries is the need of the hour. Australia is an ideal partner for India in grains management, rationalization of costs and logistics. Australian pension funds need to keep themselves engaged in India’s infrastructure development requirements.

India and Australia need to quickly resume their bilateral talks on the stalled Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). I have been working on a report which is a response to Australia’s India Economic Strategy Report 2035 – this now awaits final approvals. Australian businesses will benefit immensely from opportunities and market that India offers for scaling up technologies in med tech, health tech, edu tech, water technologies, shipbuilding and startups. Collaborations in digital gaming and animation, fin tech, textile designing, sports technologies and equipment, renewable energy and power, food processing, dairy technologies, healthcare, clinical trials and pharmaceuticals; besides the strong areas of mining and resources, technology and services, agriculture and education will immensely strengthen the bilateral economic relationship. Now is the time for Australian businesses to look at diversification, and the advantages and opportunities that the Indian market can offer. Indian business will need to seriously look again at the advantages offered by investments in Australian resources, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals and agriculture. Both sides need to ramp up efforts for a strong, reliable, and mutually beneficial relationship.

By Ambassador Anil Wadhwa

Ambassador Anil Wadhwa is a former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs of India and currently, a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation based in New Delhi. He is leading a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) team which has worked on an Australia Economic Strategy Report.