By Rekha Bhattacharjee
With a change in government in Canberra, ties between India and Australia are likely to experience another upswing. New Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made better relations with India as one of his government’s top foreign and trade policy priorities.
As expected, China continues to occupy precious space as far as the foreign policy of the new government is concerned. Judging from his recent media statements, Tony Abbott is all set to tow the line followed by his predecessors while interacting with Beijing but India is not too far down on his priority checklist.
“India also is a good friend of Australia and I hope in the years to come we’ll have a more developed relationship,” Abbott declared recently.
Abbott reiterated his government’s commitment to taking India-Australian bilateral ties to the next level when he met his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Brunei recently.
“Abbott said he is committed to cooperation on the nuclear issue and other areas and he wants to bring this agreement to closure at an early date,” Secretary (East) in India’s External Affairs Ministry Ashok Kantha told mediapersons soon after the first bilateral meeting between the two prime ministers.
According to the media reports, the talks between Tony Abbott and Manmohan Singh covered economics, security and nuclear relations. Abbott, who has spent three months in India as a young Jesuit, seems to have a clear idea of the roadmap he is going to follow in architecting a new era of Indo-Australian relations.
As an evidence of his sincerity to strengthen Canberra’s strategic relationship with New Delhi, Abbott has asked for an expedited finalisation of the ongoing discussion on nuclear cooperation between the two Indian Ocean rim countries.
It is expected that the nuclear trade deal between India and Australia would be concluded by the end of the year thus removing one of the most contentious issues out of the way.
Former Labour prime minister Julia Gillard, after having weathered strong opposition from within her party ranks, cleared the way for export of Australian uranium to India in December 2011. While previous Liberal prime minister John Howard had flagged a thaw in the frosty India-Australian relations, it was the successive Labour governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard which took the bilateral ties to new heights.
Besides facilitating uranium supply to India, Tony Abbott is also expected to continue with a number of initiatives taken by the preceding Labour governments to bolster bilateral ties with India, which is the fourth largest trading partner of Australia. Energy supplies (including uranium, gas and coal), defence cooperation, vocational training, higher education, joint scientific research and water management are some of the areas where the two countries were working closely under the Labour government.
Most India watchers and foreign policy experts believe that the change of guard at Canberra would not translate into a change in how Australia perceives India’s position in the regional affairs.
Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Programme at the Lowy Institute, is one such political commentator who firmly believes that the new government in Canberra “marks the best kind of continuity when it comes to strengthening ties between the Indian Ocean democracies”.
“Another reason the conservative Abbott government is likely to prove conducive to good bilateral relations is the steady hand it will likely bring. Some positive ambitions to deepen Australian engagement with Asia were undermined by internecine strife within the Labor Party,” says Medcalf who is also an Associate Director of the Melbourne-based Australia-India Institute.
Tony Abbott has made it amply clear that he would not be troubled by any ideological moorings while dealing with major global and regional players like China, India, the US, and Japan.
The Conservative PM has already pledged to lead a government based on “values, not ideology”.
“It lacks the ideological baggage that delayed and initially distorted Labour’s relations with Delhi, and will have strong collegiate relations with conservative state governments in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, where much of the real business of Australia-India relations is now done,” Rory Medcalf wrote in one of his articles for the Lowy Institute last month.
Tony Abbott has never pretended that foreign policy is his forte. It is believed in political circles that he would continue to practise, though uncharacteristically, rhetorical modesty while dealing with the global heavyweights.
“It is not the job of the Australian prime minister to stand up and give lectures to the wider world,” proclaimed Abbott at the recent summit.
The Liberals’ approach of “business first” augurs well for India-Australia bilateral ties. As political commentator Greg Sheridan recently opined: “Two governments — Tokyo and New Delhi — were particularly happy Australia changed government Sep 7. They both felt neglected under Labour and didn’t like the obsession Labour seemed to have with China, even if this obsession did not routinely produce good, calm, predictable Beijing-Canberra relations.”
The new Australian PM would have to punch above his weight to avoid falling a victim to the above-mentioned constraints.
(16-10-2013-Rekha Bhattacharjee is a veteran editor who is resident in Sydney. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)