Albanese’s first visit to India as PM boosts the new strategic partnership
Dr Pradeep Taneja, Academic Fellow, Australia India Institute
This article was originally published in the March 2023 edition of Delhi Policy Group’s East Asia Explorer.
Anthony Albanese’s first visit to India (8-11 March) as Australian prime minister marks a significant milestone in the growing Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two nations. The visit was significant for three key reasons
First, it marked an important step-up in defence cooperation between the two Indo-Pacific countries, each concerned about the threats to regional stability and security arising from a growing Chinese footprint on its periphery. Albanese’s announcement during his visit that Australia will host the next iteration of the Malabar exercise was a clear indication of the strengthening of the Quad partnership that also includes the United States and Japan. The joint statement issued after Albanese’s talks with Prime Minister Modi also referred to continuing discussions about the possible joint deployment of aircrafts on each other’s territory to enhance maritime domain awareness. In a sign of the emerging defence partnership, the Australian prime minister was welcomed aboard India’s new aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, by Indian Navy personnel during a visit to Mumbai. Albanese declared that India was now a “top-tier security partner” of Australia.
Second, the first visit to India by an Australian prime minister since 2017 was also significant for economic reasons. While the value of Australia-India two-way trade (A$34.3 billion in 2021) seems insignificant in comparison with Australia’s trade with China (A$267 billion in 2020-21), the determination by both countries to reduce overdependence on China and diversify their trade relations adds a new dimension to the bilateral economic relationship. Just as Australian companies are being encouraged to diversify their sources of supply, India can become a long-term supplier of electronic and other industrial equipment and consumer products as its industrial capacity grows and Indian products become more competitive in price and quality. The Australian government is also very keen to upgrade the interim Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) signed by the two countries in 2022 to a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) by the end of 2023. Although this may be an ambitious deadline, the political will demonstrated by the leaders of both the countries in concluding the ECTA raises the prospects of CECA being finalised in the near future.
Finally, as Prime Minister Albanese celebrated the festival of Holi with the Governor of Gujarat and other local dignitaries in Gandhinagar, he reminded his Indian hosts that this was not his first Holi, which was already “a highlight on the Australian festival calendar”. The people-to-people contacts and educational exchanges between the two nations have reached a new high. Australia’s 700,000-strong Indian diaspora provides a solid base to turbocharge bilateral cultural, sporting and commercial ties. Indian students in Australian universities and colleges make up the second largest group of international students after China; but in some universities they are the largest. Deakin University, which falls in the latter group, became the first foreign university to establish a campus in India during the Albanese visit.
The cricket rivalry between the two nations has also taken on a new meaning as the loud and proud supporters of the Indian team often turn up in huge numbers whenever Indians play the host team in Australia cricketers can only dream of when they play in India – something the Australian.
But like any other relationship, there will be challenges and risks that the bilateral relationship must contend with as and when they arise. This became evident during the joint address to the media when Prime Minister Modi publicly raised the incidents of vandalism targeting Hindu temples in Australia by the Khalistan supporters. Mr Albanese appeared a little surprised, but later said that he had assured Mr Modi that Australia does not “tolerate the sort of extreme actions and attacks that we have seen on religious buildings, be they Hindu temples, mosques, synagogues, or churches.”
But by raising this issue in public, Mr Modi may have set a precedent for foreign leaders to raise concerns when similar events occur in India. Another potential challenge to the bilateral relationship could come from within Mr Albanese’s own side of Australian politics. To the extent that the recent warmth in India Australia relations is a subset of the transformation of US the anti– India ties this century, US sentiments expressed by some leaders of Mr Albanese’s party may also pose a risk to the Australia-India relationship. Several senior leaders in the Australian Labor Party have expressed strong views against the new AUKUS partnership and criticised the slow progress in improving relations with China. The former Labor prime minister Paul Keating has been highly critical of the Australian foreign and security policies. He has in the recent past described the Indo India and Japan as the “wobbly ends” of Pacific partnership and criticised India’s “feckless unreliability” and its human rights record. Mr Keating remains an influential figure in the Labor Party and his views could influence others in the Albanese government. Overall, however, it is safe to argue that Australia-India relations have much room for growth and will continue to flourish in the current geopolitical environment. In many ways, the stars are aligned for a burgeoning strategic and economic relationship between the two countries over the next decade and beyond.