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Oct 12, 2012

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India Australia Relations Review: Julia Gillard Visit

The first state visit of Ms. Julia Gillard to India from 15th to 17th October as the Prime Minister of Australia should give a fillip to India Australia relations. For India Australia’s importance lies as a reliable and proximate base for resources be it in terms of natural such as minerals including coal, gold, copper, diamonds, zinc and Uranium or as a hub for education and skills development for the large number of middle class youth looking for modern facilities at costs lower than Europe or the US. For Australia India is a good source for driving its commodity and education sectors providing a fillip to the economy. The importance of education in the Indo Australia relations would be evident as the last visit to India of Ms Gillard in September of 2009 was as a Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education.
Ms Gillard’s visit will include normal circuit of bilateral discussions with the Prime Minister, calling on the President, meeting with  the External Affairs Minister, leader of the Opposition and Chairman of the UPA. The visit should in the words of the Ministry of External Affairs in India, “provide a further impetus for the future development of our strategic partnership.”

The strategic partnership was inked during the visit of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to India in November of 2009 and is just about 3 years old which may not be adequate time for expanding the contours, hopefully Ms Gillard’s visit will provide the required impetus. Some of the vectors of cooperation for the future are envisaged as per succeeding paragraphs.

Uranium. Given Australia’s large reserves of Uranium, India is hopeful that it would be able to obtain requirements for expansion of reactors envisaged in the nuclear power sector. Reports in the Australian media indicate that the Labour Party under Prime Minister Gillard has reviewed the policy and agreed to consider the export of uranium to India being  non NPT signatory under certain conditions. As per the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the issue was discussed by India’s External Affairs Minister Mr S M Krishna and Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mr. Bob Carr in Phnom Penh on the sidelines of ASEAN. The issue is now with the Australian Government which may be taking up the same with the Indian side and whether it happens during the visit of Ms Gillard remains to be seen though some informal consultations may be in the offing?

Education. Australia emerged as a popular hub for education in the late 1990’s with over 48,000 students in various institutes at one time. An education exchange programme was concluded in October of 2003. The numbers have now come down to 36,000 as per the MEA. The drop was result of several incidents of violence against Indian students some years ago. The Australian government has taken some proactive action to contain the malaise with in-depth scrutiny of colleges, enhanced security and overhaul of immigration. Thus the incidents have now come down considerably. Given the downside to Australian economy it is envisaged that high vigilance against recurrence is being maintained and there would not be any further complaints on this account.

Economic Engagement. A Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is under discussion and is expected to be concluded later to diversify the trade in goods and services.  The trade as per figures provided by the MEA currently stands at about 17.4 billion dollars in 2011-12 with imports, mainly minerals at US $ 15 billion and exports under 2.4 billion dollars. Indian investments in the mineral sector in Australia are 11 billion dollars approved in 2011. Some rapid progress in this direction should be noteworthy.

Defence. India and Australia have a MoU in defence cooperation which was concluded in 2006. The defence relationship has been growing with the first Defence Policy Dialogue held in 2010 and the visit of Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith to India in December 2011. There are preliminary explorations on bilateral naval exercises while Passage Exercises (PASSEX) during naval ship visits to each other's ports is continuing. There are exchanges at the services level but much more could be on offer particularly in the field of maritime security and counter piracy. The Australian army contingent is deployed in Afghanistan, some sharing of best practices could have been valuable but has not happened so far. India is apprehensive of being caught in a trilateral or multi lateral arrangement with Australia which includes either the US or Japan but a bilateral arrangement should be more than welcome.  

Regional Cooperation. The Indian Ocean Region Association for Regional Cooperation  (IOR-ARC) is a forum where India and Australia are cooperating to enhance the security of the Indian Ocean Region. Australia will take over the Chair of IOR-ARC from India in 2013. Here again there is ample scope for synergy not just through the IOR – ARC mechanism but also through other programs such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

All in all the visit of the Australian Prime Minister Ms Julia Gillard should provide an impetus to the India Australia strategic relations which have been languishing for some time now. Two key issues are likely to be nuclear material trade and security of Indian students in that country. It is apparent that there has been positive progress on both the fronts as has been highlighted above. Hopefully engagements during the visit will add momentum to consolidation of relationship in the future.

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