India and Australia share much in common as vibrant, functioning, multicultural democracies. Additionally, curry and cricket seem to have facilitated a better bond between the two countries!
Melbourne alone is said to have over 500 Indian restaurants. Butter chicken curry is part of the standard buffet spread on numerous tourist cruise boats that showcase the magnificence of Sydney Harbour and its iconic Opera House. And the hunger with which both cricket teams seek victory over each other certainly matches the spice of the curries!
Beyond cuisine and play, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia focusses on a shared global agenda. At the G20 summit, he stressed seeking insulation of economic reforms from politics, reiterated India’s priority to repatriate black money stashed abroad, linked unaccounted money to security challenges, sought a coordinated international policy on terrorism, drug trafficking and arms smuggling, and highlighted the importance of cyber security for the global financial system. G20 nations collectively account for 85% of global GDP and 75% of global trade.
Yet bilateral trade between India and Australia is rather low at Australian $15 billion. India is Australia`s 10th largest trading partner and imports coal, gold, copper and to a lesser extent agricultural produce, collectively aggregating around Australian $12 billion. On the other hand, India primarily exports pearls, gems, spice, passenger motor vehicles and iron tubes, aggregating about Australian $3 billion, placing it 20th on Australia’s list of imports. That’s modest compared to the 2015 trade target of $40 billion set by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her visit to India in 2012.
Both nations are keen to boost trade. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is important to achieve this. Ironing out details of the proposed Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement to facilitate exports from Australia’s massive uranium reserves to feed India’s energy requirements over the next decade would also be an area of mutual interest.
Additionally, the two countries could seek expanded engagement in education and skill development. It is estimated that over 35,000 Indian students study across Australia, making them among the top three nationalities in various universities.
Australia is known for its success in vocational education training and skill development. India has a massive workforce seeking quality employment for a better life. An estimated 200 million jobs need to be created over the next decade in India. Were Indian students to avail vocational training and teaching, it would augur well for the Make in India and Skill India initiatives that seek India’s emergence as a glo-bal manufacturing hub. The challenge lies in matching India’s requirements against Australian knowledge and experience in rupee terms rather than in dollars.
Beyond economics, common interests exist on various bilateral, regional and multilateral issues. Australia supports Indian membership to Apec. Commentators acknowledge that all this and more might well be achievable outcomes given the speed with which the leaders of both countries are focussing on the path ahead. Prime Minister Tony Abbott was in India in September, where he also interacted with business leaders in Delhi and Mumbai. Modi’s visit to Australia has come barely 10 weeks later. Further, the India-Australia Business Summit is scheduled for early 2015.
Possibly the most critical aspect of this relationship is the significant presence of a resident community of Indians in Australia, officially estimated at about 4,00,000. When one includes persons of Indian origin as well as non-resident Indians, the number is said to exceed half a million.
As elsewhere, the Indian community has done well for itself and is respected for its talent and enterprise. Melbourne is home to the largest contingent of Indians recognised for their work and initiative. From the CEO of the City of Yarra to the first elected counsellor in Wyndham, an adviser to the Labour Party in Victoria to the COO of a prominent Australia Football League team, lawyers, chartered accountants, publishers and media professionals, the stamp of India is evident all across. Several Indian entrepreneurs have set up successful businesses all over Dandenong thus contributing to Victoria’s manufacturing capacity and growth rate.
Throughout Australia, the Indian migrant community is considered to be the fastest growing ethnic group. In Sydney, the prime minister’s address to an estimated 21,000 Indians at the Allphones Arena is keenly awaited. In Melbourne, he will interact with business leaders at a civic reception at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, after which a visit to its inno-vative sports museum is scheduled. It is this community of Indians that can be a bridge that links to enable outcomes between India and Australia.
But beyond the hype, the visit is seen as one that could prime significant outcomes. Both leaders are young in their respective tenures. Both are seen as decisive and action-driven with a marked preference for liberal economic policies and reform, where government facilitates rather than restricts enterprise. That the visit may be both “special & historic”, as Modi tweeted a few days before his departure, should come as no surprise. And if the warm bear hug between Modi and Abbott is indicative, perhaps bridging the emotional distance between the subcontinent and the continent has already begun.