India and Australia

Tony Abbott's India Visit: An Assessment

12 Sep, 2014    ·   4655

Dr Rahul Mishra analyses the outcomes of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot's India visit for the New Delhi-Canberra bilateral

The successful conclusion of the much-awaited India visit of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a watershed event in India-Australia relations – that has been under performing for several years. In order to revitalise the bilateral, he paid a two-day state visit to India from 4-5 September, at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. During his visit, Abbott held meetings with Modi, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Hamid Ansari, and the Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj.

Abbott deployed tools of soft power to bolster Australia’s relations with India. As a goodwill gesture and also to convince New Delhi of Australia’s commitment towards India, Abbot personally handed to Modi, two idols, the Dancing Shiva and the Ardhanarishvara worth Rs. 30 crores and 2 crores respectively. Abbott, who was accompanied by an impressive business delegation, also visited Mumbai and launched the ‘New Colombo Plan’ at the University of Mumbai. The ‘New Colombo Plan’, among other things, will help stronger and smoother flow of students from Australia to India. The plan is primarily aimed at encouraging the young Australians to study Asian culture in general and for boosting awareness about the Indo-Pacific Asia in particular. 

Additionally, to underscore the importance of cricket in the two Commonwealth member-countries, Abbott attended the facilitation of young cricketers by prominent Australian cricketers, Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee, at the Cricket Club of India.

Business-wise, Abbot’s India visit resulted in four important MoUs: the MoU on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy; the MoU on cooperation in Sport; the Renewal of MoU on cooperation in the field of Water Resources Management and; the MoU on Cooperation in Technical Vocational Education and Training.

Most importantly, the two countries signed the much-awaited and debated India-Australia civilian nuclear deal. It is worth noting that India has been trying to convince Australia to ink a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement since 2008. After much domestic debate, in 2011, Australia’s former Labor government, led by the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, decided to go ahead with civilian nuclear cooperation with India, provided the latter fulfills required norms. From 2012, the both sides held five rounds of negotiations and finally arrived at a mutually agreeable decision – that is manifested in the inking of the civilian nuclear deal. 

Australian apprehensions, though justified in a way considering the compulsions of domestic politics, did affect India-Australia relations. Many in India believed that denying India the yellow cake showed Canberra in a poor light as New Delhi’s strategic partner. The decision to cooperate on nuclear energy generation is a landmark achievement for the bilateral, and would lead to deeper mutual understanding and greater bilateral relations. It reflects, as Abbott said about India-Australia relations, “…Australia’s desire for India to be in the first rank of Australia’s relations.” In addition to civilian nuclear technology, both sides are working closely on other aspects of energy. The latest among such achievements is the government’s decision to approve the Adani Group’s proposal to develop the Carmichael coal deposit in Queensland, which, when realised will be one of the largest coal mines in the world. 

Energy cooperation with Australia is vital as India’s energy demands far outweigh the supplies. Most of India’s energy supplies are dependent on coal, oil and LNG (Liquid Natural Gas); the share of nuclear energy is abysmal – just about two per cent of its total power capacity. The government is actively working to boost the share of nuclear energy, and towards that end, India has signed civilian nuclear energy pacts with Kazakhstan, Russia, France and the US. Amongst uranium suppliers, cooperation with Kazakhstan is already in place; a move that will gain more strength with supplies from the world’s third biggest uranium producer – Australia. 

In the strategic realm, China’s unprecedented rise has posed numerous challenges to the regional countries, including India and Australia. In this context, the uncertainties posed by China’s rise have played a role in India’s and Australia’s changing perceptions of the 21st century global politics. It is noteworthy that India and Australia have welcomed the US Rebalancing towards Asia. The first-ever bilateral maritime exercise, to be held in 2015, would prove to be another milestone in the bilateral.

The US has played a key role in bringing the two democracies closer. India’s improved ties with the US have influenced Australia’s perception of India’s role in the regional and global politics. India’s economic growth and the rise of its middle class have offered numerous business opportunities to Australia – that is well-equipped to seize the opportunity of engaging India. Australia is actively working on devising better ways to engage Asia and its major stakeholders, including India – evident from the fact that the two sides have pledged to increase bilateral trade from A$ 16.5 billion in 2012-13 to A$ 40 billion by 2015. An early conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement and the commencement of nuclear commerce will be much beneficial in that regard.

Abbott’s India visit has given the much-needed fillip to overcome the inertia that had crept in India-Australia relations. How Modi takes further steps to strengthen ties when he visits Australia in November, remains to be seen.