Interview originally published here.
The President of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of India’s premier think tanks, Samir Saran, was recently in Australia.
In an exclusive interview with The Australia Today, Mr Saran outlined the importance of the Australia-India bilateral relationship and how crucial this relationship is going to be from a strategic and economic point of view.
Q1) How important is the India-Australia relationship going to be globally and for the Indo-Pacific region from a security point of view?
Mr Saran: India views Australia as one of its most important partners in the world. The relationship has transformed in less than a decade. Today, the two countries are exploring opportunities to work shoulder-to-shoulder on new opportunities to tackle challenges that confront Asia and the world. The partnership has been catalysed by shared concerns about China and a shared responsibility to ensure a peaceful and inclusive Indo-Pacific by partnering closely with like-minded countries in the region.
Q2) How do you see bilateral trade between the two countries going forward, is it likely to substantially increase after the trade agreement?
Mr Saran: The signing of the interim agreement has come at a time when the trade momentum between both the countries is on a high. The latest data by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry of India, released in April 2022, show 104.8% year-on-year growth in Indian exports to Australia and 99.5% year-on-year growth in Australian imports to India. The completion of the FTA would definitely boost volumes of trade between the two countries—both expect trade in goods to double in five years to the US $50 billion. Australia’s aim is to make India the third-largest destination in Asia for Australian investment and also one of its top three export markets by 2035.
Q3) How important is it for Australia to diversify its international trade and reduce its exposure to China?
Mr Saran: It is extremely important. As one of the developed world’s most China-dependent economies, Australia will always be vulnerable in case of deterioration in bilateral ties. By pushing for answers on the origin of the pandemic, Australia has already angered Beijing. After being at the receiving end of Beijing’s trade weaponisation, it is extremely significant for Australia to reduce its perverse dependence on China by diversifying its export markets. Australia and others also need to invest more in trade diversification, and supply chain resilience and are conscious of the geopolitical risks.
Q4) How important is it for Australia to increase its economic engagement with India specifically given the implications not just for geoeconomics but also geopolitics?
Mr Saran: The broader trade and technology agenda is closely linked to and implicated by politics. This geopolitical convergence in the Indo-Pacific is also driving the current upward trajectory in the economic relations between India and Australia. Australia realises that even as it seeks to respond to the increase in Chinese influence within Pacific Island countries, India is staving off the overbearing presence of the dragon in South Asia. Instead of relying solely on the United States, it is time for India and Australia to increase their economic engagement and build their own capabilities to push back against Chinese expansiveness. They have obvious overlapping interests in the region and a clear motivation to make this happen.
Q5) How important is Australia going to be for India from a trade and security point of view?
Mr Saran: As the first bilateral trade agreement of India with a developed country in the last decade, this FTA with Australia is extremely important. as India is not part of any significant regional or free-trade bloc. Apart from eliminating or lowering tariffs on both sides, this FTA positively influences other ongoing bilateral trade negotiations that India has with Canada, the EU and the UK.
As mentioned earlier, due to an overlap in the Indo-Pacific regional visions of the two countries and the escalating competition between US-China, India sees it important for Australia to bolster its security capacities through enhanced defence acquisitions and spending, as well as by strengthening existing defence cooperation. India and Australia, by investing in their own security and economy, are offering the other greater ability to manage and negotiate the changing political and economic landscape in Asia.
Q6) Are there any specific areas where you see the potential for increased engagement that require more attention?
Mr Saran: There are four areas where there’s potential for increased engagement. First is political – both India’s and Australia’s neighbouring island countries are facing excessive inducements by the CCP to follow the Chinese way of life. We need to realise that dialogue with these island countries is not enough, we need to put money where our mouth is. India and Australia can create an islands initiative, wherein we invest in their technology futures and climate resilience, and offer them better, safer money than what is on offer from the Chinese.
The second is climate – as India transitions to a green economy, Australia can vigorously partner with us. As a country with sophisticated financial institutions, Australia can offer significant inputs in the technology, R&D and innovation space. Australia’s financial institutions can also service the significant Indian appetite for green finance and infrastructure projects.
Third is technology – instead of becoming the B-teams of Silicon Valley, the India-Australia technology partnership could create tech for development, fit for our neighbourhood. This would not only help the ASEAN and island countries, but also the emerging world. India and Australia have the potential to be the A-team of the tech for a development paradigm that serves the next 6 billion that silicon valley does not innovate for.
And finally, diaspora – we need to scale up Australia’s educational and knowledge partnership with India. We need to take Australian institutions to India and offshore the education industry, wherein the former is able to increase its presence and build to-scale education and skilling institutions in India.
7) Do you see Quad as having substance or is it more a symbolic grouping at this stage?
Mr Saran: Quad, as of today, is a limited-purpose partnership that was born out of common concern about Chinese activities. At this stage, the Quad is beginning to become more ambitious and is seeking to shape the development and technology pathways the region treads on.
A quad must consider building more substance through institutionalisation and by delivering on specific projects in the Indo-Pacific region.