Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to cancel a visit to Delhi due to the raging bush fires notwithstanding, Australia and India are preparing for an intense period of engagement this year, said outgoing Australian High Commissioner Harinder Sidhu, outlining progress expected on strategic, trade and people-to-people ties.
While Mr. Morrison is expected to reschedule his visit to India some time before June, a senior Australian trade delegation led by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham is expected in February.
Meanwhile, in a significant move, Mr. Morrison has proposed to send a political appointee instead of a career diplomat in Ms. Sidhu’s place. According to at least two sources aware of the decision, the next envoy is likely be the former Premier (Chief Minister) of New South Wales Barry O’Farrell, who has also been the deputy chair of the Australia-India Council and NSW’s special envoy to India. In 2013, after a meeting with the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Mr. O’Farrell had forged a “sister-State relationship” between NSW and Gujarat, and has visited India several times.
During his tenure, Mr. O’ Farrell was a key supporter of Indian investment in Australia including the Adani Group’s Carmichael coal mine project. The Indian commodities and ports group has so far invested about $2 billion into the project in Queensland that is set to become operational soon after facing delays on account of sustained opposition from environmental groups. According to Ms. Sidhu, the mine’s operations will not be impacted by the current protests in Australia over the bush fires and the new push by Mr. Morrison’s government for renewable energy.
Speaking about the bilateral trade and investment relationship, Ms. Sidhu said that India-Australia business ties had grown exponentially and the future course for the next decade was being set by Australia’s “India Economic Strategy” document that had been released and India’s “Australia Economic Strategy” paper that was being finalised. Ties would, however, develop quicker if India rejoined the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that India walked out of last year, according to the Australian envoy. India has been invited to the next RCEP meeting in February, but it is unlikely to discuss terms for renegotiation.
“It remains our hope that India will seriously consider returning to the RCEP table,” Ms. Sidhu told journalists during an interaction in Delhi. “We believe that it is in India’s interests and it would deepen the economic engagement and political relationships within RCEP countries including Australia. It would reduce the risk that India would be excluded from any RCEP related or further economic cooperation down the track.”
According to Ms. Sidhu, Australia and India have made great strides in their “common vision” of the Indo-Pacific as well, adding that if India were to invite Australia to its trilateral naval exercises “Malabar” with the U.S. and Japan this year, Australia was “likely to accept”. Ms. Sidhu said she was, however, “not personally aware” that any invitation had gone to Canberra for the exercises. India has thus far rejected Australia’s overtures to join the exercises, believed to be out of a hesitation to “militarise” the Quad formation which could upset China. Australia had pulled out of the original exercises after participating in 2007, but has for the last few years expressed the hope that it could return as part of the new Indo-Pacific strategy involving all four nations.
Ms Sidhu, who leaves India at the end of her tenure next month to assume office as Deputy Secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that there had been a big “uptick” in strategic and defence ties between both countries with 39 bilateral interactions in 2019 alone. “I think the signature achievement of my time has been the incredible growth in the breadth and the depth of the India-Australia relationship,” Ms. Sidhu said. “Since 2017, the quadrilateral dialogue (Australia-India-Japan-U.S.) has come together, as has the trilateral with Japan, and now the trilateral dialogue with Indonesia as well,” she added.