The year 2016 proved to be one of the most beneficial years for Australia-India strategic ties which witnessed active economic, defence engagements and improved cultural linkages, providing a good base to further cement bilateral relations. The year kicked off with an important visit by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley along with a large group of top business and industry leaders to explore and seek Australian investments, especially from the estimated 2 trillion dollar superannuation funds industry.
“The Australia-India relationship (in 2016) was stronger, more diverse and more active than has ever been the case,” said Australian High Commissioner to India Harinder Sidhu.
Sidhu said the bilateral relationship which was elevated to the status of strategic partnership in 2009, had grown dramatically and “since the time our two Prime Ministers visited each others’ countries in 2014, it has accelerated again.”
Overall on the economic front, India was Australia’s ninth largest trading partner and fifth largest export market, with two-way trade valued at around 20 billion dollars.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently told a business leaders meeting that his government had ‘high hopes’ of concluding the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with discussions to be ramped up in 2017 with the Indian side.
Turnbull is also expected to visit India next year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited him on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China in September.
On the defence and security front, the then Indian Army chief General Dalbir Singh made a five-day official trip to Down Under where he held high-level talks to expand military-to-military ties and visited an Australian military school.
The two sides held the annual bilateral maritime dialogue this year as part of a comprehensive bilateral architecture which covers issues as diverse as counter-terrorism, energy security and science and technology.
According to Sidhu, the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement had entered into force, enabling the export of uranium to India.
“We are moving to build a reliable basis for commercial uranium sales to India. As new reactors come online, we hope to supply a good part of India’s 2,000 tonne demand per year,” she said.
Early this year, a new social security agreement signed between India and Australia came into operation enabling people of both nations to avail retirement benefits in each other’s country, a pact likely to boost bilateral business linkages.
“This is expected to save Australian businesses operating in India about 10 million dollar per year, and put Australian businesses on an equal footing with their competitors from other countries that already have similar agreements with India,” Australian Minister for Small Business and Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer had said.
Indian energy major Adani’s controversial 21 billion dollar Carmichael Coal and Mine project in central Queensland remained in news throughout the year, facing legal challenges from traditional owners to environmentalists.
The project this year managed to receive final approvals from Australian government and ‘critical infrastructure’ status is expected to kick-start next year. Adani Group has also announced its plan to become the biggest solar operator in Australia, where it aims to develop 1.5GW of renewables projects within five years.
According to Sheba Nandkeolyar, the National Chair of Australia India Business Council, the year 2016 had certainly shown more bilateral business and trade engagement even though the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) discussions were slower than anticipated.
“There have a lot more delegations coming in from India at very senior levels. This is unprecedented, and shows a definite interest in the bilateral trade relationship. The Adani project go-ahead is a big plus factor in the relationship,” she commented.
Nandkeolyar said that the new year looked good with the Vibrant Gujarat Summit kicking off next year where an Australia-India Business Council delegation is due to participate.
On the cultural front, the year 2016 was a bonding year for the two sides. The Indian government launched a 10-week-long ‘Confluence:festival of India’ programme across seven Australian cities which showcased rich and diverse Indian arts and culture.
The programme was billed as an important way to foster collaboration and generate a reservoir of goodwill between the two sides.
Nandkeolyar, also a member of the Australia-India Council, a high-level Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade board, said that 2016 has been an excellent year in the history of the Australia – India relationship.
People-to-people linkages also improved with student enrollments from India to Australian universities and educational institutions recording an increase.
India remained the second largest source of international students and eighth largest source of tourists for Australia.
However, the tragic killing of 29-year-old Indian-origin bus driver Manmeet Alisher, also a popular singer of Punjabi community, in Brisbane made headlines across the two nations.
Alisher was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire at a bus stop by a 48-year-old man.
The tragedy prompted Prime Minister Modi to call his counterpart Turnbull to express concern over the killing.
A prisoner transfer deal between the two sides, inked in 2014, came into force this year, enabling Australians in Indian jails to apply to serve the remaining part of their sentences in Australia and vice versa.
While the India Australia relationship has been increasingly consolidating this year, much work lies ahead to make it a defining one in coming years.