The research strengths of Australian universities in areas such as cyber security, quantum computing, space technology, robotics and AI, critical technologies, public health, water, waste utilization, teacher training, low-cost housing, and solar power, to name a few, are all initiatives and aspirations that PM Modi has identified for India and which Australian universities are well-placed to collaborate on.
Indian Prime Minister Modi will be in Sydney next week. This would be his second visit to Australia as prime minister, and with a gap of almost a decade. Yet, within these ten years, the bilateral relationship has undergone a dramatic transformation from one that lacked depth and substance to one that is being referred to as among the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century and a critical pillar in the Indo-Pacific. Credit must go to PM Modi for having reimagined the relationship when he first visited in 2014 and struck a chord of friendship across all sections of Australian society, from the government to people to business and industry, and the diaspora.
During this ten-year period, there have been frequent bilateral contacts not only between the two prime ministers but also through ministerial and official-level talks on multiple areas of strategic convergence. The key challenge has been China and Xi Jinping’s combative approach and expansionist agenda that poses a serious threat to the Indo-Pacific, especially the disruption of trade routes, the territorial assertion over the South China Seas, and a possible invasion of Taiwan.
Focused on the China threat, Canberra and New Delhi have intensified their security and defense dialogue. Training programmes, joint drills, and the sharing of intelligence information have been central to this. The Malabar Exercises, which would see the participation of the navies of India, Australia, the US, and Japan, in August this year, are part of this strategic response.
At the same time, both Australia and India recognize the importance of engaging with other countries in the region. India has robustly reached out to Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and others, and holds joint naval exercises with them. PM Modi’s visit to Papua New Guinea just a couple of days ago reflects New Delhi’s keen interest in engaging with the Pacific Island states to tap into the diaspora there and counter-expanding Chinese influence. Canberra is, similarly, reaching out within the region. The recent visit of Foreign Minister Penny Wong to the Philippines reflects this.
Plugging literacy gaps
Both India and Australia also recognize that Quad is not a military alliance along the lines of AUKUS, nor was it ever meant to be. It needs to be seen as a non-threatening grouping by ASEAN, and one that does not challenge the centrality of ASEAN in the region. Care has, consequently, been taken to ensure that Quad is accepted as a strategic support and not as a confrontational one.
But then, the China factor cannot be the sole driving force in the bilateral relationship. There have, consequently, been exceptional interventions across multiple verticals.
Tourist traffic between both countries has increased, allowing for a better appreciation of each other’s culture and ways of seeing. Masterchef Australia has played a significant role in attracting Indian tourists to Australia. The recent initiative of Canberra to open an Australia-India Cultural Centre in Sydney would play a significant role and complement the efforts of the Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre at the Indian Consulate. Greater awareness of literature, creative writing, and the arts would provide more insights. The teaching of India Studies and Australia Studies in educational institutions, starting at the school level, would fill the literacy gaps about each other that presently exist among the people of both countries. More importantly, it would help correct misperceptions.
Enhancing economic and cultural engagements
This year will also see the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) paving the way for doubling two-way trade from the present $25 billion. The commitment is to grow it to $100 billion in a few years through reduced tariffs, increased market access, and expansion of the trade basket. But this also requires that the depth and intensity of engagement between the business communities of both countries is enhanced significantly so that lack of awareness as to how one does business with Australia/India is not perceived as a confusing challenge.
International education and research are yet another significant pillar in the bilateral architecture. The research strengths of Australian universities in areas such as cyber security, quantum computing, space technology, robotics and AI, critical technologies, public health, water, waste utilization, teacher training, low-cost housing, and solar power, to name a few, are all initiatives and aspirations that PM Modi has identified for India and which Australian universities are well-placed to collaborate on. This, in fact, opens the way for not only collaboration with the government but also with Australian and Indian partners in business and industry.
Barry O’Farrell, the Australian High Commissioner to New Delhi, had said that it was time to think beyond the 3Cs of cricket, commonwealth, and curry, and to look at 4Ds – Democracy, Defence, Diaspora, and Dosti (or friendship). I have often advocated that we need to change the vocabulary to the 3Es – Economy, Energy, and Education. But whatever alphabet we use, PM Modi deserves full credit for having seen a future in India-Australia relations when others in both countries had failed to do so. It is a relationship whose time has truly come.
(The author, a former Indian diplomat. is engaged in the area of international education. He was recently awarded the Order of Australia and is the third Indian citizen to receive this high honour. Views are personal)