By Amruta Karambelkar
The optics surrounding PM Antony Albanese’s visit to India were unprecedented in the bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Albanese enjoyed the friendly cricket match between the two teams in Ahmedabad, rightly so, considering how cricket has been the common factor that had familiarised Indian citizens about Australia as a country, and possibly, vice-versa. However, the bilateral relationship has evolved beyond people-to-people or cricket. Today, India and Australia share mutual interest in strengthening economic and security ties. Both countries share mutual interest in maritime security, economic growth, climate change, and multilateralism. They also share the geography of the Indo-Pacific, and the sub-region of the Indian Ocean.
The bilateral relationship was upgraded to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2020. The relationship has grown particularly from 2014 onwards. Political exchanges have intensified in recent times; both prime ministers have met three times in the past one year, and 18 ministerial level exchanges took place in the past one year. During the year 2022, notable economic developments include the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), the ongoing negotiations on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, progression on mobility and migration agreement, and advancement in trade and services, and the CEO forum. The first summit was held during this visit on the 10th of March. The Joint Statement from the summit constituted 50 substantial points that present the extent of the bilateral cooperation, as well as matters of common interests in multilateral fora like the Quad and the Indian Ocean Region.
In so far as economic relations are concerned, the drive to engage deeper came about through India’s increasing need for coal, critical minerals, and interest of Indian citizens in Australia. For Australia, India fits into the need to diversify its exports, which have historically been dominated by China. Bilateral trade in 2022 ( i.e. before the ECTA was signed this year) stands at approximately $27 billion, (which is much below the potential). To simplify, India imports raw materials and exports finished goods to Australia. India is Australia’s fifth-largest export market and seventh-largest trading partner. The symbiotic characteristic of the bilateral trade was described; rather interestingly, as a ‘win-win’ following the signing of the ECTA in January 2023. The ECTA is expected to create 10 lakh jobs in India, and increase Indian exports by $10 billion in the next five years. Under the ECTA in so far as trade in service, which facilitated post-study visas for Indian students; is hailed as the one of the largest concessions on Australia’s part. Australia also enjoys MFN status in several subsectors in the services. During the visit, the Australian delegation was presented with India’s capabilities in defence manufacturing and showcasing opportunities for Australia. Besides, the prime ministers held discussion on outcome documents that included cooperation in science and technology, strategic and security, renewable energy, and on critical minerals, etc.
Besides trade, another important area of bilateral cooperation is climate change and transition to cleaner fuels where access to critical minerals assumes importance. The Indian government has been taking substantial efforts towards its commitments, whereas in Australia, climate change is a very important domestic issue- to the extent that it was a major issue during the 2019 federal elections.
In terms of defence and security, the security relationship has strengthened with greater institutionalisation marked by regular exchanges, particularly from 2015 onwards. PM Albanese’s press statement mentions how bilateral maritime domain cooperation is an important segment- as maritime nations both have interest in safety and security of sea-lanes of communication, or uninterrupted supply chains. The Indian foreign secretary described the bilateral security relationship as robust, strong, growing and multi-faceted in the maritime domain. PM Albanese’s visit on INS Vikrant was the most highlighted event during this trip and it can be interpreted in several ways: as a symbol of growing mutual trust (putting the past behind), of the underlying maritime security as the key element of bilateral as well as the larger Indo-Pacific security, and of India’s prowess in indigenous defence manufacturing. Both sides are in discussion to institutionalise deployment of aircraft carriers in each other’s territories. If successful, it would be a major breakthrough for Indian naval presence in a distant geography in the east.
So finally, what is the significance of this summit?
One, the biggest outcome of this visit is the beginning of a deeper relationship between the two countries. Two, both sides view each other as critical economic partners and this was evident through the visit- PM Albanese visited Ahmedabad and Mumbai before he arrived in New Delhi, and the delegation consisted of Australian CEOs. This has opened doors for greater economic opportunities for both the countries, which cannot be underestimated. India has recently intensified its economic diplomacy through signing of FTAs with several strategically important countries to meet its goal of a $5 trillion economy by 2025, and the Ind- Aus ECTA is one such. Indian students, service industry and professionals like Yoga instructors and chefs will benefit from easing of work-visas. Finally, a closer India-Australia ties also solidifies all the constituents of the Quad. As the two resident Indian Ocean countries, one can anticipate that the deepening of bilateral relation would encourage collaboration in regional security. A stronger India-Australia comprehensively strengthens the two diagonal poles of the Indo-Pacific.
The author is pursuing a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.