Keen to finalise CECA by the year-end, says Australia’s envoy Philip Green

Oct 16, 2023 09:01 PM IST

Australian high commissioner Philip Green said CECA will build on the momentum created by ECTA, which was signed last year

NEW DELHI: Australia is keen to conclude a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India by the end of the year and the seventh round of negotiations is underway in New Delhi, Australian high commissioner Philip Green said on Monday.

Australian high commissioner Philip Green said Quad has developed a sort of specific gravity that is entirely different from what it was five years ago (Australian high commission)
Australian high commissioner Philip Green said Quad has developed a sort of specific gravity that is entirely different from what it was five years ago (Australian high commission)

Green, who took over the position in late August, said in an interview that CECA will build on the momentum created by the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), which was signed last year and has resulted in a 12% increase in agricultural imports and 20% increase in apparel imports from India. Edited excerpts:

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What are your priorities for taking forward India-Australia relations, is there anything specific that you’re looking to build on?

I think we’re in a unique period of Australia-India relations. I have a clear mandate from my prime minister to strengthen and deepen this relationship as much as I can, and I sense that is shared by Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi. I sat with them when they had their one-on-one at the G20 and there is a genuine human warmth there and a determination that we do a lot more in this bilateral relationship. Some people talk of pivot points or switches being flicked. In my view, we’ve passed the pivot point, the switch is flicked.

We are looking for a stronger and deeper relationship with India and I sense from everyone I talk to on the Indian side that’s a mutual thing. What is encouraging about that is that it’s not just a sentiment. It’s undergirded by three key drivers in this bilateral relationship. We have a new level of strategic alignment that Australia and India have never shared. We are deeply interested in framing a region which is free, open, inclusive and resilient. We have a very similar picture of what that looks like and a readiness to work together in all sorts of fields. Defence, security [and] a lot of things that we can and will be doing together increasingly.

Then on the economic side, from our perspective, you can’t ignore the fact that India is already the fifth biggest economy and on track to be the third biggest, growing at nearly 8% per annum. That’s a market no sensible country and certainly one like [Australia] could fail to miss, but I think what’s important from the Indian side is to perceive how complementary our economic systems are. We are an economy that is very good at resources, energy, agriculture and services and that fits very neatly with many of India’s needs. We can be the power, including the green power, to many of India’s industries. When it comes to the supply of minerals and metals, especially [those] required for the new economy, with critical minerals, we are going to be right up there with the world leaders and we want Indian partnership. When we look at what our near-term objectives are, obviously concluding the CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) by around the turn of the year [is] a very high priority for us.

The third thing driving this bilateral relationship is what we call the human bridge, nearly one million people of Indian origin live in Australia. We’ve only got 26 million on the whole continent, that’s a big fraction. It’s the one national group that’s growing the fastest. They are warmly received in our continent, they are making big contributions to our society and our economy, and we are deliberately trying to ensure they are able to be a positive vector in the bilateral relationship. We recently established the Centre for Australia-India Relations, a multimillion-dollar outfit, both the chair and the CEO are people of Indian origin, both very distinguished Australians. We see them as a crystallising factor, to try to make the most of this important part of Australia’s fabric. It’s a unique moment, my challenge is to drive this as far and as fast as I can in the course of the next three or four years. I don’t propose to miss the opportunity.

How are talks progressing on the CECA and what issues, if any, are holding up the trade deal?

Let’s first of all recall what we’ve already done. The ECTA (Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement) was the first of its kind for India for a very long time. I think path-breaking is not the wrong term. There are others who are now trying to benefit by following the same path. It’s delivering in a way that’s really quite impressive. I think agricultural imports into Australia from India are up 12%, apparel imports into Australia from India are up 20%. There are tangible benefits already visible from the ECTA. That’s what we want from CECA as well.

We want a CECA agreement that further strengthens our skills and economic partnership so that more Indian people can be skilled up either in Australia or in India at very high standards and relatively low cost to the benefit of the Indian economy. One area I’m particularly personally interested in is agriculture and the way in which Australian agri-tech can support the Indian farm sector. Hundreds of millions of peoples’ livelihoods are dependent on this.

One of the things we would like to progress in CECA is to clarify more how the very high quality and hi-tech Australian agricultural sector can support that. The seventh round of negotiations is happening on this very day in this very city. Those negotiations are going well, spoke to the chief negotiator on the Australian side. She has very high respect for her Indian counterpart and those are going well. Ministers are engaged. There will have to be more ministerial engagement, [the way] these things work. The end phase is done at the political level. We are hopeful that that can be done by around the end of the year. I personally am keen to see that happen. There are no guarantees in this business. But I’m optimistic and I think that we can and should get this done, and if we do, there will be very significant benefit to Australia to some degree, but certainly to India.

Are things like dairy on the Australian side and mobility on the Indian side holding up things?

Those are two issues that are being discussed and will continue to be discussed. But the discussions are going very well, in a very cordial and substantive way. I’m not going to get into specifics frankly, I’m not across the details of the day-to-day negotiations, but what I can tell you is the atmospherics are very good and we are ready and willing to settle this deal in the next couple of months.

What are Australia’s plans to build on the security and defence partnership?

The first thing to say is that we are growing our defence and security partnership quite rapidly from a not-fully mature state. We’re doing some new things, fresh [and] innovative things. A key objective is to normalise, regularise and deepen those contacts. It’s one thing to do something once. It’s another thing to do it over and over and over again, strengthen mutual understanding, increase trust, strengthen inter-operability. When you ask me about particular areas, I would have to say the one that for me stands out above all others is maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean. We both have a very deep interest in a free and open Indian Ocean. We have a shared interest in better understanding that maritime domain. What better way than to strengthen each of our individual levels of understanding of that domain and to work together and to share more frequently.

What is the progress on Australia’s efforts to become a major supplier of critical minerals to India?

There will be individual projects and they’ll go ahead in different individual timeframes. There’s two sorts of interactions that could occur here. There could be Indian firms investing in Australian mining and processing activities and then being part of the offtake. Or there could be straight offtake agreements between Indian firms and Australian producers. All of those things will work at different timeframes.

There’s two different sorts of activities going on. There’s a government-led activity where we have identified five major projects which we think are very prospective – two in the field of lithium and three in the field of cobalt and we’re moving ahead with those. The supply chain is complex. There’s as many supply chains as there are critical minerals. If this was easy, it would have been done without the sort of government effort that’s going on. It’s also a reality of mining projects that getting them from the point where you know there is a resource in the ground to actually being able to put it in a ship and send it abroad, that takes a long time. We’ve got 60 years of experience of being one of the world’s greatest exporters of metals, minerals and energy. We’re very confident of our capability. So there’s that government piece. But what I’ve been very heartened by in my early weeks in India is the non-government piece, the number of Indian firms who have come to me independently and said we would like to be part of the Australian action in critical minerals. They are doing their own scouting. They will find their own way through the best partners and best resources. I am very encouraged since I’ve been here that this is going to lead to actual deals, actual mining and actual processing.

Concerns are growing across the region regarding China’s territorial disputes with several countries, including India. How do you view China’s actions in this regard?

Let me talk a bit about borders first. The thing there to say is that border negotiations are primarily to be undertaken between the individual parties who are concerned and we’re not individual parties who are affected and we’re not part of it. But we say two strong things – we say it’s very important that where there are tensions, that restraint is the key dynamic. Australia stands against any unilateral changes to the status quo in places, for instance, like on your border with China. More broadly about China, let me say this – we are stabilising our relationship with China and that involves a degree of engagement and there are positive elements in our relations with China. But when we see issues of concern, we speak about them. We note China is involved in the biggest conventional military modernisation since World War 2 and that is being undertaken without a level of strategic reassurance, without a clarified set of understandings as to why it’s occurring. As we go forward with our stabilisation and our deepening engagement with China, we also note those realities.

What issues will Australia bring to the table for the next Quad Summit and what initiatives are being taken up in trilateral engagements with countries such as France and Indonesia?

The first thing to say is that Quad is really maturing. The last time I was in this country was in 2018 and I came here as I was then managing the Quad file in Canberra and there is no comparison between the level at which the conversations are taking place, the degree of specificity of what we’re doing, the clarity of the agenda. That tells you how far and how fast it’s gone in the five-year period. It would have been hard to foresee, frankly, when I was here in 2018. Quad has working groups and five major areas of focus, including cable communication, infrastructure, health, security, etc.

The other ones are good engagements and the thing about these mini-laterals is we each have an interest in a future for our region which is peaceful, honest, open and resilient. But we each come at it from the perspective of our own geography and to some extent our own history and culture. Sharing perspectives with an Indonesia, a massive Southeast Asian powerhouse at the gateway between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, a country that we’ve had long, deep and very close engagement with and with which we are building a stronger security partnership that brings a different dimension. Then you have France, which has a real interest in our region because it is a global power and has possessions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s a P-5 power.

Each of these different forums has its own texture and culture and things it can go deep on because of geography and the different character of the partnership. We are a nation towards the centre of the Indo-Pacific. We focus deeply on our Pacific family. We are determined to ensure that those societies have all the benefits of prosperity, stability and resilience. We’re increasingly engaged in Southeast Asia, and we are looking for new ways to work, particularly in the eastern Indian Ocean. Each of us brings a different dimension to these conversations, and each of the different trilaterals and the quadrilateral has a different texture. But beyond all that, I mean the clear thing to say is that the Quad has developed a sort of specific gravity that is entirely different from what it was five years ago.

How does Australia, a member of Five Eyes, view the row between India and Canada over the Khalistan issue?

The first thing I’d say is that it’s saddening for a country like Australia to see our two dear friends, Canada and India, having some difficulties in their bilateral relations. You know what it’s like in your personal life and your family life when two people, for whom you feel dearly, are not getting on. We hope they can find an amicable resolution to this as soon as is realistic. We have a long history in Australia of migrant groups from different countries who may have different views about things. We fully support the right of people to make their views known and to undertake peaceful demonstrations and protests. But just as much, we are focused on observance of the law. In particular, we put a lot of effort into ensuring the safety and dignity of Indian diplomatic presence as [well as] in the broader sense, in the dignity of India in Australia. We’ll continue to focus on that and I assure my Indian interlocutors of that.

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