Expectations are high that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia could see a paradigm shift in bilateral ties. Australia had been lobbying for a bilateral summit since the time it knew it was going to host the G-20 Summit. The last bilateral visit to Australia was in 1986 and the PM, known to pull surprises, clearly surprised Canberra pleasantly by agreeing to visit three Australian cities.
Thirty years of lukewarm engagement is reflected in the uninformed views that people of both countries have of each other. Most Indians know Australia only as a great sport-loving country and as a cricket rival. Following the adverse, and often unfair, publicity that Australia attracted in 2009 after the attacks on Indian students, many continue to believe that Australians don’t like Indians. That ignorance extends even to the educated who will struggle if asked to name five Australian writers or even cities. Similarly, Australians too may stumble if asked to name five Indian authors who have not been ‘discovered’ by western publishers.
Many Australian think tanks argue that Canberra’s overtures through several ministerial visits to India received a lukewarm response because Canberra needed New Delhi more than the latter needed the former. There was also a recognition that New Delhi was displeased with Canberra’s reluctance to conclude a nuclear deal with India. That stumbling block was removed during Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent visit to India. Modi’s visit can finally lift the game and enable both sides to engage and strategise. Everyone hopes that the two PMs will do no less as there is plenty of potential.
The Pacific and Indian Ocean are, for instance, strategically important to both countries. China’s aggressive posturing and disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have all the elements for a possible Cold War in the Pacific. The waters are the principal shipping route for commercial vessels and any disruption could have disastrous consequences for global trade. Annual joint naval exercises and patrolling on anti-piracy missions would strengthen maritime security. Joint exercises, including with the navies of Japan and ASEAN countries, will underline our commitment towards a dispute-free Pacific. Both countries should institutionalise defence cooperation through ministerial and armed forces dialogue.
Bilateral trade in 2013 stood at A$14.7 billion and is skewed in favour of Australia. India’s exports stood at a meagre A$2.4 billion and principally comprises passenger motor vehicle parts, medicaments, pearls and gems. This reflects the indifference of Indian business to the size of Australia’s market with its 22 million population. Indian business should see Australia as a market for high-value upper-end products and aim to expand their export basket. Modi’s ‘Make in India’ will resonate strongly in Australia, provided Indian industry guarantees quality control and adherence to Australian technical requirements. In five years, the target should be to double two-way trade. Infrastructure spending, ease of doing business, and wide-ranging reforms, including in the labour sector, lie at the heart of Modi’s growth strategy. Without these, it will not be possible to attract foreign investment. Any commitment the PM makes on this will be welcome.
Today, Masterchef Australia has emerged as a great public diplomacy success. Australian indigenous writers are currently touring India while Tom Keneally participated at the Goa Literary Festival. Organisations like Artisans of Fashion bring together Indian weavers and top Australian fashion designers to create for the Australian market. All this needs to be amplified with a larger Australian footprint in India. Australian universities need to set up chairs of Australia Studies in Indian universities, just as a Chair for Contemporary India Studies has been set up at the University of Technology Sydney. Australian students can be encouraged to study in India, possibly through a university-to-university arrangement that allows for a transfer of credits. Unless we improve the way in which we perceive each other, the opportunity that now presents itself could once again be lost.
Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian Consul General in Sydney
The views expressed by the author are personal