The outgoing Australian High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, on Friday said Australia is seeking to stabilise, not normalise, relations with China, which, he added was no different from India’s position towards China.
During an interaction with journalists of The Hindu group in Chennai, he said India continued to talk to China for the same reason as that of Australia, which was to resolve bilateral issues as there is a potential that these issues, if unresolved, could worsen and create greater instability in the region.
He was responding to a question on Australia joining the AUKUS and its intention to play a decisive role in the Indo-Pacific region to counterbalance China. He stressed that AUKUS is not an alliance, but a technology transfer device. He said Australia supported the status quo in Taiwan.
When asked if Australia would consider restricting export of lithium to China for strategic reasons, he said Australia usually did not do that. “We are a country that has traditionally traded on the basis of people wanting to purchase the goods that we have for offer,” he said.
According to him, Australia is trying to put in place secure supply chains for India and Japan for the supply of critical minerals and rare earths and progress is being made on that front with India, especially through the Khanij Bidesh India Ltd (KABIL).
He said China closed its borders to a number of Australian products such as beef, barley and wine, while they continued buying other natural resources like the iron ore. Many Australian businesses, which had overdosed on the Chinese market, learnt a big lesson during COVID-19 that if one were operating in a non-democracy, “the taps can be turned on and the taps can be turned off”.
Mr. O’Farrell said though COVID-19 and the trade difficulties Australia faced with China gave an impetus for boosting its economic relations with India, the India-Australia relationship runs deeper and is increasingly influenced by people-to-people links and the Indian diaspora, which is energetic and ambitious.
“No Premier, no Prime Minister will ever again ignore the India-Australian relationship because of the significance of the Indian community within our political parties, within our community and within our society. And that’s a really good thing. And that’s in contrast to that other country [China],” he said.
He highlighted that India and Australia had complementary economies, especially considering the fact that the latter is not a huge manufacturing country. He said there was a side deal as part of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) signed last year between India and Australia, which enabled 1,800 Indian chefs and yoga masters to come to Australia a year. When asked if he was hopeful of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement between the two countries to be signed by this year, keeping in mind that India will be have its general elections in 2024, he said while he was optimistic about it, he understood that free trade deals have to be saleable to the electorates in democracies.