The following article on the Quad summit has been written by Dr Ashutosh Misra who is the CEO of the Institute for Australia India Engagement and an AIBC committee member in Queensland. We feel it will be of interest to Members and those interested in the Australia India trade relationship.
Quad’s Rise Augurs Well for India-Australia Trade Ties
Dr Ashutosh Misra
CEO, Institute for Australia India Engagement, Brisbane
The inaugural virtual summit of the Quad members should be seen as a watershed in the history of the formation, since its inception in 2007. Quad’s evolution has been impeded for long by India’s and Australia’s hesitation in formalising the Quad, owing to their own bilateral sensitivities towards China. But not anymore. In the wake of Australia’s trade tensions with China triggered by the former’s demand for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak, and on the other hand, India’s military confrontation in Doklam and Ladakh with China, their strategic cooperation has grown manifold in recent months. Their newfound willingness to stand up to China’s irridentist claims, Hong Kong and Xinjiang crackdown and periodic diplomatic bellicosity and bluster in bilateral dealings has underpinned Quad’s fruition into a formal entity.
The agenda for the inaugural Quad virtual summit was consciously kept quite wide including, Covid-19 strategy, vaccine production, climate change, supply chain disruptions, critical and emerging technologies and maritime security. The rationale being downplaying any “anti-China” posturing that Beijing may find disturbing and disruptive for the Indo-Pacific.
The bourgeoning quadrilateral vision was carefully articulated in the first of its kind joint op-ed by the US President Joe Biden, and the three prime ministers, Yoshihide Suga, Scott Morrison and Narendra PM. But for the watchers of international politics the op-ed is a significant document for its ‘in-between the lines messaging’. For instance, the reference to ‘a group of democratic nations’ in the second paragraph is a veiled countervailing democratic pushback to China’s authoritarian and bullish international conduct under the garb of ‘peaceful rise’.
In particular, the op-ed’s broad emphasis on making a joint effort to tackle Covid-19 pandemic is a clever strategy to win the hearts and minds of the ASEAN member states, Pacific Island countries (the focus of India’s Pacific Island Countries and Australia’s Pacific Step-up strategies) and the Indian Ocean littorals to offset the long-running Chinese economic and military influence. It is a welcome development for states who have long been buried under the weight of China’s debt-diplomacy and military dominance but were unable to articulate their displeasure for fear of a punitive backlash from Beijing. The use of the phrase ‘dark hour’ in the op-ed is another indicator of how the Quad wants the regional states to look at the current state of affairs in the Indo-Pacific.
While strategic commentators remained sceptical of Biden’s resolve in reining in the Chinese economic and military muscle-flexing in the region, the decision to convene the historic virtual summit has put at bay some of those scepticism, at least for some time. The Quad’s messaging has not been lost on part of other regional democracies. South Korea too, has expressed its desire to join the Quad in a “transparent, open and inclusive” manner, a clear sign of how widespread the unease runs amongst the regional states with China’s overbearing influence in the region.
So, what does the Quad mean for Australia and India relations?
India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has expressed great satisfaction in how the Australia-India ties have deepened in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, battering the two economies and causing hundreds and thousands of deaths. Since June 2020 when the inaugural Modi-Morrison virtual summit transpired, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership has not only been deepening, but also become the fulcrum of the Quad’s new collective avatar for ensuring a safe, open and secure Indo-Pacific regional architecture. It is a double delight how the Quad and Australia-India bilateral business and trade ties have assumed a mutually complementary character. The growth of Quad will underpin the Australia-India strategic partnership and vice versa.
Engagements on both fronts will chart a parallel course and should not be seen in isolation. Peter Varghese, the author of India Economic Strategy report had observed much before the Covid outbreak, “…the stronger that [Australia-India] broader relationship the better the prospect of an economic strategy. India should not be seen only as a geopolitical partner”. Now New Delhi too sees Australia not only as an economic partner but also as a geopolitical partner, therefore vindicating the rationale for elevating their 2009 strategic partnership into a ‘comprehensive’ one.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade observes that India’s youthful population and diversified growth trajectory present significant opportunity in education, agriculture energy, resource, tourism, healthcare, financial services and infrastructure among other areas. Both sides have formalised over 20 MoUs last June covering some of these areas during the Modi-Morrison virtual summit. Their two-way trade has risen from $13.6 billion to $30.4 billion in 2018, but it is still below their full potential. By 2035, both sides aim to double their bilateral trade and Australia seeks to bring India in its top 5 trading partners (currently 8th).
Ambassador Anil Wadhwa’s Australia Economic Strategy report launched a few months ago could not have come at a more opportune time in bilateral and regional affairs. The report has identified 12 key sectors inter alia, mining, services and start-ups, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and medical technologies, education and skills, agribusiness, infrastructure, power and renewable energy, railways, gems and jewellery, automotive spare parts, and tourism. The report very nicely complements the recommendations of Varghese’s India Strategy across 10 sectors. Although, both reports lay less emphasis on defence cooperation, Quad’s evolution and new regional equations are likely to boost bilateral collaboration in drone development and shipbuilding. The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and Island Support Agreement to use Andaman & Nicobar and Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the maritime domain, and India’s decision to include Australia into the Malabar Naval exercise, assume much greater significance in context of the Quad’s emergence. These are good omens even for the stalled negotiations on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
In sum, Australia and India are now well-positioned to play their long-due leadership roles in the Indo-Pacific, and broadly speaking, in international affairs. Business and trade benefits to both would automatically accrue. It is a great opportunity emerging at a historic high in bilateral relations and should not be missed.
Dr. Ashutosh Misra, PhD, MPhil, MA, BA.CEO and Executive Director
Institute for Australia India Engagement (IAIE)Editor-in-Chief INDIA NEWS Australia
Committee Member, Australia India Business Council, Queensland
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