India-Australia Ties: Evolution, Cooperation Areas, Challenges, Way Forward

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Australia’s Prime Minister had called off his four-day visit to India from January 13 due to the catastrophic bushfires in his home country. However, when it does take place, the next India-Australia summit will be an important occasion to promote the bilateral ties between the two nations. The bilateral relations between India and Australia is often characterised as one of the perpetually unfulfilled promises. However, for the first time since India’s independence, India and Australia currently have an opportunity to develop diplomatic ties that are free from irritants. This is due to the common interests of the two nations that have come forth in the current changing geopolitics.

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How did it begin?

  • The historical ties between India and Australia initiated following the European settlement in Australia from 1788.
  • Both the nations established the diplomatic relations in the pre-independence period, with the setting up of India Trade Office in Sydney in 1941.
  • Historically, the bilateral ties between India and Australia suffered from several issues.
  • Following India’s independence, the Australian leaders advocated the British counterparts to retain the strategically important Andaman and the Nicobar Islands within the British Empire.
  • During the Cold War, Australia had decided to be a close ally of the US, while India initially opted for Non-Alignment.
  • Then there was the Pakistan factor. Australia’s attempts to act as the mediator between India and Pakistan in the 1940s and 1950s were not taken well by New Delhi.
  • Over time, during the Cold War era, Australia opted for close ties with Pakistan – a close ally of the US – instead of India.
  • Repeated efforts to strengthen the bilateral relations between India and Australia were in vain.
  • Then another complicating factor came in when India became a nuclear weapon state while not being the member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
  • In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group had granted a waiver to India, leading to Australia lifting its uranium ban against the NPT non-signatories and a bilateral agreement in 2014-15.
  • Another issue that plagued the bilateral ties was the lack of people-to-people ties due to the “White Australia” policy that banned immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands.
  • Also, there were differences in the policies of the two nations when it came to the approach towards the apartheid-era South Africa.
  • However, this is not the case in the current times as India is among the largest contributors to Australia’s population growth. There is a massive influx of Indian students and tourists to Australia.
  • The end of the Cold War and India’s decision to launch major economic reforms in 1991 ensured the development of closer ties between the two nations.
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What are the areas of cooperation?

Strategic cooperation:

  • Due to the changing global scenario, Australia currently sees India as an important partner to promote regional security and stability.
  • This led to the up-gradation of the bilateral ties between the two nations to a “Strategic Partnership”, including a “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation” in 2009.
  • Over the years an array of institutional mechanisms have been established to promote bilateral cooperation like Annual Meetings of Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers’ Framework Dialogue, Indian-Australia 2+2 Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries Dialogue, Defence Policy Talks, Energy Security Dialogue and Australia-India Education Council.
  • The Australian foreign policy blueprint that was released in November 2017 sees India’s alliance as a vital asset for its security interests in the Indian Ocean. It also strongly encourages India’s strategic engagement with East Asia and the US.

Political cooperation:

  • Over the years, both the governments recognised that there is significant potential in furthering cooperation across a range of areas.
  • The two-way Prime Ministerial visits in 2014 had enhanced the bilateral relationship, representing the growing depth of the strategic ties, converging interests and shared values.
  • The bilateral relations reached a new high in 2018 with Australia’s Governor-General visiting India and the Indian President returning it with the first-ever visit to Australia.
  • During his visit to Australia that year, President of India had unveiled the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parramatta in New South Wales as a part of the on-going 150th Anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi.
  • 5 MoUs were also exchanged during this visit.
  • The Prime Ministers of both the nations also met twice during 2018 on the sidelines of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and East Asia Summit (EAS). This gave a significant push to the bilateral relations.
  • On June 2019, the Prime Ministers of both the nations held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the G20 Summit that was held in Osaka, Japan.

Dialogue Mechanisms:

Prime Ministerial Visits:

  • On 2014, during the visit of the Former Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott to India, four agreements/MoUs on Civil Nuclear Cooperation, sports, water resources and skills were signed. During this visit, the Australian Prime Minister had returned the two stolen statues of Nataraja and Ardhanarishawara, which previously housed in the Australian Museums.
  • In the same year, the Indian Prime Minister visited Australia for the G20 Leaders’ Summit and a bilateral visit. During this visit, “Framework for security cooperation between India and Australia” and five other agreements/MoUs on social security, tourism, arts and culture, sentenced persons and combating narcotics were signed.
  • On 2017, the Australian Prime Minister paid State Visit to India. During this visit, both the nations reinstated their commitments on improving the bilateral defence and security ties and welcomed the progress made through the bilateral Framework for Security Cooperation that was agreed in 2014.
  • During this visit, both the countries also committed to the deepening economic relationship with emphasis on cooperation in the areas of energy, education, science and innovation, sports and health and strengthening of the international rule-based systems.
  • Six bilateral agreements/MoUs on cooperation in combating international terrorism and transnational organised crime, health and medicine, sports, environment, climate and wildlife, civil aviation society and space technology were signed during this visit.

Visits of other delegations:

  • Several high-level delegations at the ministerial levels visited Australia from India in 2018.
  • India’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare visited Australia in 2018 to attend the Inaugural Meeting of the Global Digital Health Partnership and International Digital Health Symposium.
  • On the same year, Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports visited Australia to represent India at the closing ceremony of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
  • Minister of Commerce and Industry and Civil Aviation also visited Australia in 2018 for the 15th India-Australia Joint Ministerial Commission.
  • Minister of Human Resource Development visited Australia in 2018 to participate in the 4th Meeting of Australia-India Education Council.
  • Foreign Ministers’ Framework Dialogue (FMFD), the central mechanism for advancing bilateral agenda, is held annually, alternately in India and Australia.
  • On 2019, the Australian Foreign Minister visited India to attend the Raisina Dialogue.
  • India-Australia 2+2 Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries Dialogue is held annually since 2015 to enhance the foreign and security cooperation.
  • Trilateral Dialogues that include India and Australia are:
  • India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue is a secretary-level trilateral meeting involving India, Japan and Australia that was initiated in 2015.
  • Indonesia-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue was initiated in 2017.
  • The other recent important bilateral mechanism talks:
  • Senior official-level India-Australia Dialogue on East Asia
  • Senior official-level Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism met in Canberra in May 2019. The JWG previously focused on counterterrorism only. However, since November 2014, the Prime Ministers agreed to include transnational crime in the Working Group under the Framework of Security Cooperation.
  • The 3rd India-Australia Bilateral Dialogue on Global Cyber Issues was held in New Delhi in September 2019.
  • On November 2018, both the nations held bilateral consultations on non-proliferation and disarmament issues in Canberra.
  • On the same year, the 4th India-Australia Maritime Dialogue was also held in Canberra.
  • Defence Policy Talks and Joint Working Group on Tourism were held in 2019.

Cooperation in Multilateral forums:

  • Australia supports UNSC reforms.
  • Both the nations are the members of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), ASEAN Regional Forum and Asia Pacific Partnership on Climate and Clean Development.
  • Both the countries have also participated in the EAS and cooperating as the members of the Five Interested Parties (FIP) in the WTO
  • Australia is an important player in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and supports India’s membership in this organisation.
  • In 2008, Australia became the observer of SAARC.

Economic Cooperation:

  • India-Australia economic relationship has grown significantly in recent years due to India’s growing economic profile and commercial relevance.
  • To improve its economic relationship with India, Australia had commissioned the India Economic Strategy to define a pathway for Australia to utilize the potential of India’s economic growth.
  • The strategy was released in 2018. It identifies key sectors and states Australia should focus on.
  • According to the strategy, states that have the potential to improve the economic relations between the two nations are Andhra Pradesh, Delhi NCR, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
  • The sectors mentioned in this strategy include education, agribusiness, resources, tourism, sports, science and innovation.

India-Australia Joint Ministerial Commission (JMC):

  • It was set up in 1989 to enable interaction at a government and business level on a range of trade and investment-related issues.
  • It aims to improve investment and trade between the two countries.

India-Australia CEO forum:

  • It is a mechanism for business from both countries.
  • It was established in 2011 and revitalised in November 2014.
  • It helps the nations to engage directly to improve the bilateral trade and investment ties.
  • The forum includes heads of Indian and Australian business from an array of sectors like energy and resources, agribusiness, financial sector, telecommunications, IT, education and pharmaceuticals.

Bilateral Trade:

  • India is the 5th largest trade partner of Australia with trade in goods and services at A$29 billion. This is 3.6% of the total Australian trade in 2017-18. India’s export stood at A$ 8 billion.
  • Overall trade increased 13.1% on year on year basis.
  • While the imports increased by 9.7% on year on year basis, exports increased by 23.3%.
  • The two countries are discussing a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. However, the negotiation process is currently held up.

Civil Nuclear Cooperation:

  • Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement was signed between the two nations in September 2014 and came to force from November 2015.
  • It provides the framework for a new trade on the energy sector between the two nations.
  • The Australian Parliament Passed the “Civil Nuclear Transfer to India Bill, 2016” to allow Australia’s uranium mining companies to supply Australian uranium to India for civil purpose.
  • It also ensures that any future bilateral nuclear-related trade for civil use protected.

Defence Cooperation:

  • Defence relations between the two nations has significantly improved in recent years through the framework of bilateral talks at the level of defence ministries, service-to-service interaction, defence training and exchanges of visits by the Service Chiefs and Senior Officers.
  • During the Prime Minister’s visit to Australia in 2014, both the nations have decided to extend the defence cooperation to include research, development and industry engagement. They have also agreed to hold regular meetings at the level of defence minister, conduct regular maritime exercises, convene regular service-to-service talks.
  • The first-ever Bilateral Maritime Exercise, AUSINDEX 2015 was held in September 2015 in Visakhapatnam and the Bay of Bengal.
  • The most recent of the bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX 2019 was held in April 2019.
  • In 2018, Australia also participated in Milan, a multilateral naval exercise hosted by the Indian Navy under the aegis of the Andaman and Nicobar Command.
  • In the same year, the Indian Air Force participated for the first time in the Exercise Pitch Black in Australia.
  • INS Sahyadri participated in Kakadu, Australian Navy’s biennial Exercise in September 2018.
  • The third edition of the AUSTRA HIND (Special Forces of Army Exercise) was held in September 2018.

Agriculture, science and technology cooperation:

  • An Australia-India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF) has been established.
  • Both the nations have identified several collaborative research projects in the fields of agriculture research, astronomy and astrophysics, environmental science, microelectronics, nanotechnology, renewable energy, marine science and earth systems sciences.
  • Through AISRF, each side contributes A$ 65 million to support large-scale research projects designed to deliver practical solutions, focusing on energy, food and water security, health and environment.
  • It consists of India-Australia Biotechnology Fund, India-Australia Science and Technology Fund, Grand Challenge Fund and Fellowship Schemes.
  • Joint Committees on Science and Technology and Biotechnology have been set up to administer the AISRF.
  • This Fund is in addition to $40 million committed earlier by both the sides to support the joint research on earlier mentioned fields.
  • Both the nations have also committed to $20 million for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) to research dry-land agriculture in India.
  • Australia is also cooperating in the Clean Ganga Project and water resource management.
  • In 2017, MoU was signed to cooperate in the field of water resource management.

Resource and Energy security:

  • A Joint Working Group on Energy and Minerals was set up in 1999 to enhance the bilateral ties in the energy and resources sector.
  • These Joint Working Group meetings saw the discussion on the latest developments on trade and investment, energy and mineral policy.
  • During one of these meetings, both sides agreed to a new Work Programme for activities under each of the five action plans – mining and minerals, petroleum and natural gas, coal, power and renewable energy.
  • These meetings also saw the discussions on challenges in skills, science and innovation and infrastructure.
  • India, through the energy sector cooperation, had learnt techniques for exploration and improvement of the mining environment and obtained mining technology and equipment.
  • In 2017, the Foreign Minister of Australia signed a framework agreement for Australia to join the International Solar Alliance that was led by the governments of India and France. In December that year, Australia had formally ratified the agreement.

Education:

  • JWG on Education between the two nations identified several key areas of cooperation including collaborative research in education policy, student exchange programmes, capacity building in vocational education and distance learning in higher education.
  • Under the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan, 900 Australian undergraduates have studied and completed internships in India in 2015-16.
  • Australia-India Education Council (AIEC) is a mechanism to promote bilateral cooperation in the education sector. It promotes improved cooperation between the educational institutes of the two countries to enhance the academic and research collaborations.

Sports:

  • Australia is committed to assist in establishing a world-class Sports University in India.
  • In 2016, the Indian delegation visited Australia to study and discuss with the Australian Sports University for setting up National Sports University in India.
  • In 2017, an MoU on Cooperation in Sports was signed during the former Australian Prime Minister’s visit to India.

Consular Cooperation:

  • The Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) and the Extradition Treaty were signed in June 2008 and was ratified by both the nations. These treaties came to force in 2011.
  • A JWG on Visas, Passports, and Consular Matters was set up in 2008.
  • Issues related to biometric border management, illegal migration, extradition, MLAT, surrogacy, visa etc. are also discussed by the two countries.
  • Both the countries have also signed a Social Security Agreement in 2014 and ratified in 2016.

Why is the improvement of India-Australia bilateral ties vital?

  • The strategic trust between the two nations has improved in recent years due to the shared outlook on democratic value and international laws.
  • Both nations have similar interests when it comes to the need for open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
  • As India is emerging as one of the major players in the region, Australia can no longer ignore India in its policies on Indo-Pacific.
  • Due to the strategic location of Australia, it too is playing a crucial role in India’s geostrategic interests.
  • Bilateral cooperation can efficiently address the common challenges like combating transnational crime, international terrorism, smuggling, piracy etc.
  • Australia’s expertise in the areas of health, education etc. can help India’s Make in India This is because Australia has a significant advantage over India in these aspects.
  • India will have the largest working population in the world by 2027. Thus, there is a need for up-skilling of the population to make use of the full potential of the human capital.
  • Australia has the potential to assist India by providing knowledge.
  • India is the third-largest source of immigrants to Australia and the second largest source for skilled professionals.
  • Both nations are equally wary of China’s growing dominance.

What are the challenges faced during the bilateral relations?

China:

  • In 2007, following the inaugural meeting of the new Quadrilateral Dialogue, Australia inclined favourably towards China and later withdrew from the QUAD.
  • Australia’s favouritism towards China did not go well with New Delhi.
  • Thus, India’s policies towards Australia are always characterised by mistrust.

Malabar Naval Exercise:

  • Despite Australia’s open lobbying to be included into the Malabar Naval Exercise, India is not in favour of it joining the naval exercise.
  • This may be due to Australia’s close ties with China or its history of not favouring India.
  • The Indian government defended this stance by stating its fear of triggering China’s antagonism.

Economic Challenges:

  • The talks were initiated to promote comprehensive economic cooperation agreement in 2011.
  • It is currently stalled as it can significantly lower the trade balance in favour of India.

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What can be the way forward?

  • India and Australia recognise the strategic and economic importance of the bilateral ties.
  • Several commonalities and closely aligned values in the principles of democracies, liberty, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, free press and multiculturalism can be made use of to forge closer cooperation and promote multi-faceted interactions and enhancement of bilateral ties.
  • Currently, India-Australia bilateral relationship is a case of “one step forward, two steps back” despite the improving diplomatic ties since 2014.
  • The opportunities, as well as challenges of the bilateral ties, are at very different levels of development.
  • There can be converging and diverging interests.
  • Therefore, the bilateral relations in the future must focus on three pillars – economic relationship, geostrategic congruence and people-to-people ties – since they have the potential to outweigh all the other differences between the two nations.

Conclusion

Australia has an enormous potential in addressing India’s strategic and economic interests. However, its past stance concerning India has made New Delhi wary of improving diplomatic relations. Improving bilateral relations should be done by focusing on common interests in the areas of economy and security since cooperation is vital to address the emerging challenges in the global arena.

Test Yourself

What are the potential areas that can be used to improve India-Australia bilateral ties? (250 words)




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