New Australian government flags better ties with India

By Rekha Bhattacharjee

With a change of the government in Canberra, the Indo-Australian bilateral ties are likely to experience another upswing.

The new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made the better relations with India as one of his government’s top foreign and trade policy priorities.

As expected, China continues to occupy precious space as far as the foreign policy of the new government is concerned. Judging from his recent media statements, Tony Abbott is all set to toe the line followed by his predecessors while interacting with Beijing but India is not too far down on his priority checklist.

“India also is a good friend of Australia and I hope in the years to come we’ll have a more developed relationship,” Tony Abbott said recently.

Abbott reiterated his government’s commitment to take the Indo-Australian bilateral ties to the next level when he met his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of  ASEAN  and East Asia Summits in Brunei recently.

“Abbott said he is committed to cooperation on nuclear issue and other areas and he wants to bring this agreement to closure at an early date,” Secretary (East) in India’s External Affairs Ministry Ashok Kantha told mediapersons soon after the first bilateral meeting between the two Prime Ministers.

According to the media reports, the talks between Tony Abbott and Manmohan Singh covered economics, security and nuclear relations.

Tony Abbott, who has spent three months in India as a young Jesuit, seems to have clear idea of the roadmap he is going to follow in architecting a new era of Indo-Australian relations.

As an evidence of his sincerity to strengthen Canberra’s strategic relationship with New Delhi, Australian Prime Minister has asked for an expedited finalisation of the ongoing discussion on nuclear cooperation between the two Indian Ocean rim countries.

It is expected that the nuclear trade deal between India and Australia would be concluded by the end of the year thus removing one of the most contentious issues out of the way.

It was the Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had weathered strong opposition from within her party ranks, cleared the way for export of Australian uranium to India in December 2011. While previous Liberal Prime Minister John Howard had flagged a thaw in the frosty Indo-Australian relations, it was the successive Labor governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard which took the bilateral ties to new heights.

Besides facilitating uranium supply to India, Tony Abbott is also expected to continue with a number of initiatives taken by his predecessor Labor governments to bolster bilateral ties with India which is the fourth largest trading partner of Australia.

Energy supplies (including uranium, gas and coal), defence cooperation, vocational training, higher education, joint scientific research and water management are some of the areas where both of the countries were working closely under Labor government.

Most of the India watchers and foreign policy experts believe that the change of the guard at Canberra would not translate into a change in how Australia perceives India’s position in the regional affairs.

Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, is one such political commentator who firmly believes that the new government in Canberra “marks the best kind of continuity when it comes to strengthening ties between the Indian Ocean democracies”.

Tony Abbott has never pretended that foreign policy is his forte. It is believed in the political circles that Tony Abbott would continue to practice, though uncharacteristically, rhetorical modesty while dealing with the global heavyweights.

“It is not the job of the Australian Prime Minister to stand up and give lectures to the wider world,” proclaimed the new Australian PM at the recent summit.

The Liberals approach of ”˜business first’ augurs well for the Indo-Australia bilateral ties. As one of the political commentator Greg Sheridan has recently opined:

Two movernments — Tokyo and New Delhi — were particularly happy Australia changed government on September 7. They both felt neglected under Labor and didn’t like the obsession Labor seemed to have with China, even if this obsession did not routinely produce good, calm, predictable Beijing-Canberra relations.

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