Huge uptick in India-Australia strategic relations, says envoy
Against the backdrop of a significant increase in defence and strategic engagements, Australia is keen on signing an agreement with India for reciprocal access to military facilities for logistics support, Australian high commissioner Harinder Sidhu said on Wednesday.
Sidhu, set to return home after a four-year stint in New Delhi, said in the context of protests against India’s new citizenship law that Australia is closely watching the situation and would like India to continue to be a “champion for democracy”.
Noting that trade, investment, education and tourism grew in double digits in 2018 alone, she said in an interview the new India Economic Strategy, which aims to make India the third largest export market by 2035, had identified 10 sectors where Australia “can bring real change in terms of investments, know-how and genuine mutual partnerships”.
“We’ve seen a huge uptick in the strategic relationship, that’s actually what’s led the charge, the defence and strategic engagement that we have has just grown tremendously,” Sidhu said, adding strategic dialogue has expanded on issues such as maritime and cyber security and counter-terrorism.
Asked if the proposed Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) would be signed during Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s planned visit to India, she said: “We’re very keen to conclude such an agreement, and of course talks have been underway. So hopefully we will see that also come to conclusion.”
Morrison’s visit to India in January was put off because of the bushfire crisis, and Sidhu said she is “optimistic it will take place in the coming months”. The visit will bring focus to bilateral ties and take various elements to “lift the relationship up a level”, she said.
Responding to a question on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), Sidhu said: “We’re watching it closely and with a lot of interest like a lot of our people who are around. At one level, I think it is also possible to say the protests are a sign of a healthy democracy at work. But, of course, what we would very much like is for India to continue to be the champion for democracy that it has long been, including in the region.”
Australia’s India Economic Strategy has specifically zeroed in on education and academic collaboration, tourism, natural resources and agri-businesses as key areas where the Australian investments and know-how could lead to mutual benefits, she said. Despite the current downturn in the Indian economy, Australia’s judgement remains that “India is still a very good prospect and the trend-line over 20 years is still in an upwards trajectory”, she added.
Bilateral trade in goods and services was worth $30.3 billion at the end of 2018-19. There were 107,394 Indian students in Australia as of August 2019, marking a year-on-year growth of 44.3%.
Sidhu said the two sides are “still trying to talk and move forward” on the sale of Australian uranium to India. “That’s an ongoing process and I’m fairly confident we will see uranium sales to India in due course,” she said, refusing to set a timeframe because uranium is mined by private commercial entities and there are commercial confidentiality issues to consider.
India and Australia signed a civil nuclear deal in 2014 and agreed on implementing arrangements for the supply of uranium but the sales are yet to begin.