In an effort to restart India-Australia trade talks, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott landed in Delhi on Monday for a four-day visit to meet Ministers and business leaders. Mr. Abbott is in India as Australian PM Scott Morrison’s “Special Trade Envoy for India”. Despite an agreement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and PM Morrison in June 2020 that India and Australia would “re-engage” on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), talks on CECA, that have been suspended since 2015, have made no visible progress.
“Mr. Abbott looks forward to discussions on the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, which will propel our economic relationship to its full potential, to the mutual benefit of the Indian and Australian people,” Australian High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell said, announcing the visit on Monday, describing bilateral ties at an “historic high”. “This will be an opportunity to progress Australia’s ambitious agenda to energise and expand our bilateral trade and investment relationship with India,” a statement issued by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) also said.
Expected to meet Modi, Piyush Goyal
Officials said Mr. Abbott’s schedule is still to be finalised, but he is expected to meet Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and officials of the Commerce Ministry, address business chambers and think tanks in Delhi before he leaves on August 6. Officials did not rule out a meeting with Prime Minister Modi, who had met Mr. Abbott warmly, calling him a ‘friend’ during a private visit to India in 2019.
During his first visit as Prime Minister in September 2014, Mr. Abbott had been particularly keen to see the CECA to its conclusion. After talks with PM Modi who travelled to Australia two months later, the two leaders had announced they hoped to finalise the deal by the end of 2015.
“By the end of next year we will have a free trade deal with what is potentially the world’s largest market. And I want to make this declaration here in this Parliament: there are two can-do PMs in this chamber today and we will make it happen,” Mr. Abbott had told the Australian Parliament in November 2014.
However, the talks ran into trouble over market access for Australian agricultural dairy products, high tariffs and other issues. After PM Malcolm Turnbull unseated Mr. Abbott in 2015, progress on the CECA talks slowed down, particularly as talks over the 16-nation ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that included Australia and India picked up. India decided to walk out of the RCEP in 2019, however, and the bilateral CECA negotiations have been pending ever since. Mr. Abbott has been particularly critical of the RCEP agreement, that is expected to come into force on January 1, 2022, calling it the “trade arm of China’s Belt and Road Initiative”.
In an interview to The Hindu in June, the Australian High Commissioner had said the CECA talks could restart once a date for the pending visit by Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan to Delhi is confirmed. Mr. O’Farrell said the Indian industry “must be persuaded” on the benefits of the CECA for the talks to move ahead, indicating that local businesses here could prove an impediment to the free trade agreement.
‘Conflict of interest’
Mr. Abbott will visit India fresh from his success as advisor to the United Kingdom (UK) Board of Trade in its talks with the Australian government, that resulted in a Free Trade Agreement announced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr. Morrison at a meeting in London in June. The back-to-back appointments led to questions in the Australian media about a possible “conflict of interest” in case Mr. Abbott also discussed the pending negotiations for the UK-India FTA during his visit to Delhi.
“Mr. Abbott has signed a conflict-of-interest declaration in relation to his work on this trip [to India],” A DFAT spokesperson reportedly told the Australian Guardian .