The Virtual Summit between India and Australia: how Significant?
Amb Anil Wadhwa, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Connected by the Indian Ocean, Commonwealth, the English language and shared democratic values, Australia has never loomed larger in the Indian consciousness than in the last decade. The relationship has seen its highs and lows but here has been a steady improvement in the quality and intensity of the political, commercial, cultural, educational and technological engagement between the two nations. The Indian diaspora, now close to 700,000 in a nation of just 25 million and the Indian student community which is close to 100,000, have ensured that Indians are the fastest growing community in Australia, and their views increasingly get reflected in the country’s democratic and popular political discourse.

Following a series of two - way bilateral Prime Ministerial visits starting in 2014, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morrison have met at least four times over the last year on the margins of international events. The visit by Australian PM could not take place in January due to the Australian bush fires, and then the Corona virus pandemic blew out the chances of a rescheduled visit in May. The urgency of business resulted in a Virtual Summit between PMs Modi and Morrison on 4 June, which was high in optics and is seen by many as an unqualified success. The Summit had an excellent atmosphere of friendship, trust and camaraderie, and it also had substance. The 2009 bilateral bilateral Strategic Partnership has been elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and both countries have decided to upgrade the existing 2 plus 2 dialogue between their foreign and defence secretaries to the ministerial level – meeting at least once every two years. This brings the process on par with the US and Japan - the other members of the quadrilateral grouping. Through the joint declaration on a shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo Pacific, a road map for maritime cooperation has been announced in the region, along with extended linkages between the maritime agencies, to harness opportunities and meet challenges together as Comprehensive Strategic partners.

There were seven concrete MOUs agreed upon - the much-awaited Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement has been signed which will allow use of each other’s facilities, and increase military interoperability through defence exercises. India has similar agreements with US, France, Singapore and South Korea. Both sides have also agreed to deepen and broaden defence cooperation by enhancing the scope and complexity of their military exercises to address shared security challenges. They will now be able to enjoy the resources of the other in the Indian and Pacific oceans interchangeably – and this, along with the enhanced maritime domain awareness will greatly enhance their capacities and capabilities.

An MOU on Defence Cooperation already exists between the two countries. An implementing arrangement to this MOU was finalized, which will take forward the agenda of technology-based cooperation in the defence field and will bring the defence research organization of the two countries closer. The areas already identified for such collaboration include advanced sensors, underwater technologies, quantum computing and cryptography laser technologies, hypersonic technologies, and technology cooperation in shipbuilding between Indian shipyards and Australian shipbuilding industries. PM Modi also conveyed that India is working on its Mars and Moon missions, and Australia can work with India in collaboration. Space situational activities, calibration and validation of satellite data sharing of meteorology and oceanographic data and establishment of ground stations in Australia are already identified areas of collaboration.

Both countries have seen a surge in financial transactions and use of personal data in digital transactions which attracts cybercrime. Although India and Australia have undertaken cyber collaborations for the past many years, they need to do much more in order to fulfill each other’s needs and fill mutual gaps. Australia has rejected Huawei’s entry into the 5 G realm for its internal market applications, and has overhauled its telecommunications sector- the lessons learnt are of interest to India. The framework arrangement on cyber and cyber enabled critical technology cooperation was therefore an expected outcome.

India’s critical minerals strategy has identified 49 minerals required for lithium ion batteries, magnets and similar products which will be needed for India’s efforts towards e – mobility. India would welcome Australian companies to help in setting up processing facilities identified by Niti Ayog for lithium. The partnership in this area between the two countries promises much, because Australia possesses 21 minerals identified by India as critical for its future growth. The MOU on cooperation in the field of mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals will ensure a long-standing supply and investment relationship between the two countries in this area, and will ensure collaboration on new technologies for exploration and extraction of minerals.

The MOU on Cooperation in the field of Public Administration and Governance Reform is a vote of confidence in the way things are run in Australia. India and Australia both have accountable public institutions but India would like to benefit from Australia’s reforms in the public sector and the methodology of quality advice and effective implementation in public service. In future, this could extend also into the area of training and cooperation in processes.

The MOU on vocational education and training was very much on the cards. India’s demographic dividend of a young population can only be a powerful tool of progress if the workforce is trained and directed towards productive areas. Indian agencies like the Skills Development Council have therefore been engaged with a number of countries to ensure that this target of training 400,000 Indians by 2022 becomes a reality. Australia with its well-established Vocational Education System can collaborate across institutions and the private sector in India for developing skills, training curricula, and conducting workshops for raising the quality of trainers. Most importantly, Indian training institutions are looking for collaborations for raising Indian standards and gaining accreditation from Australian institutions and universities.

Water is a scarce commodity in both India and Australia, and the utilization, treatment, cleaning of water, training a community conversant with the skills of water recycling, preservation and its prudent management are the obvious areas of collaboration between the two countries. The new overarching MOU in the field will be another step forward.

In the light of the raging pandemic, collaboration in health and vaccine development is the need of the hour. An example was set by the Griffith University and Indian Immunologicals ltd of Hyderabad when they started work together in April 2020 on a Covid 19 vaccine. The two sides have agreed through the joint statement, to have a one -off special Covid 19 collaboration round based of the scientific Reserve Fund in 2020. Mutual collaboration on circular economy, surface coal gasification, waste to wealth processes was brought up by PM Modi, and these partnerships can open up new areas of collaboration.

The flagging of the need to strengthen India Australian partnership on grains management and logistics to reduce post-harvest losses, rationalize costs and supply chain logistics and the move to set up educational campuses in each other’s countries are all welcome steps. The requirement of Australian pension funds to be kept engaged in India’s infrastructure development requirements, the need for cutting out funding for terrorism, strengthening the cultural symphonies between the two countries will all add to the rich tapestry of this developing partnership.

China’s military assertiveness with ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia as it pushes for disputed sovereignty and consolidates its physical and military hold over vast swathes of the South China Sea based on so called historical rights and artificial structures as opposed to the principles of modern international lawis the backdrop of the joint approach to the concept of a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo pacific, based on the rule of law. Taiwan is living in an atmosphere of frequentbut unwelcome Chinese naval activities and overflights in Taiwan Straits which its government opposes. Japan has constantly been grappling with increasing Chinese presence in the East Sea and around Senkakus.

India is currently facing transgressions at multiple points 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. The Chinese authorities have asked tourists to refrain from travelling to Australia citing violence and racism against Chinese.

China has made aggressive forays into the WesternPacific and there have been unconfirmed reports of China seeking bases in places like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. Chinese ocean mapping activities and the presence of PLA naval vessels in the Indian Ocean has increased noticeably in the last year. The joint statements express support for cooperation in multilateral fora, for the centrality of ASEAN, for India’s Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative, for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and for the peaceful resolution of disputes rather than through unilateral or coercive actions. The Covid -19 consultations in the framework of the Quad plus, the meetings of the Quad itself, the trilateral meetings with Japan and Indonesia have all found support in the joint statement, and there is an agreement to exchange views on Australia’s Pacific set up and India’s Forum for India – Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC).

What more could have been done? For one, besides discussing challenges in the new global scenario, for working together through the Asean and East Asia Summit institutions, and for strengthening international institutions like the WHO, both sides could have looked at more concrete ways in which the bilateral economic engagement could be taken forward. India and Australia have revived their bilateral negotiations of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) which is an encouraging development. This will allow Indian companies a level playing field as far as tariffs on its exports to Australia are concerned. It will, equally, attract more Australian companies to work with India.

Mention could have been made of the Australia Economic Strategy Report which I have been working on along with the Cii team over the past many months in the joint statement. The Report has been prepared as a response to Australia’s India Economic Strategy Report 2035 and is awaiting final approvals. Hopefully, this will be taken forward through another virtual event in the future when officials and industry from both sides could participate and look at the concrete recommendations in 20 different areas identified.

Australian businesses will benefit a lot from opportunities and market that India offers for scaling up technologiesin med tech, health tech, edu tech, water technologies, shipbuilding and startups. A mutually beneficial situation can develop for both if they collaborate in digital gaming and animation, labour intensive services, 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. The current global situation has made countries rethink their strategy on the location of supply chains. An appeal could have been made for Australian big businesses to look at diversification, and the advantages and opportunities that the Indian market can offer.

TheIndian diaspora and students are a formidable force in the relationship, and the desire of PM Morrison to encourage more than 5000 Australian students to study in India under the new Colombo plan will only reinforce this strength. The Australia India Youth Dialogue has been identified by PM Morrison as the driver for conducting a Hackathon between the universities of the two countries.

India needs Australia for achieving appropriately suitable growth rates for its aspirational population of more than 1.3 billion people. Australia would benefit from finding a market in India for its natural resources, for scaling up its niche manufacturing, and for technological collaboration. As India grows, it will need to find solutions for its challenges in infrastructure, water and logistics. Australia and India can collaborate in all these fields, and the realization has been reinforced due to the geopolitical situation which confronts both these thriving democracies.

Anil Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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