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By: Rory Medcalf
India and Australia are forging new ties through education and investment.
It is rare in diplomacy to witness the transformation of relations between two countries. But that is what I have been privileged to see in Australia-India ties since I first went to Delhi as a diplomat 14 years ago. We are no longer estranged democracies, mutually indifferent and uncomprehending, separated by much more than the Indian Ocean. A set of candid and in-depth talks last week confirmed that Australia and India now have a firm foundation to advance together to face the challenges of an Indo-Pacific century.
The talks were the Australia-India Roundtable, which has grown from an informal dialogue among scholars to a programme of events involving senior officials, experts, the media, parliamentarians and business figures. It is now supported by the external affairs ministries of both governments as well as prominent thinktanks.
The messages were clear. Advancing relations between the two countries is a long game — Test cricket, not Twenty20 — and a league of champions is forming on both sides to ensure that we get through the tough times. Relations between democracies will always have rocky phases, as the US-India experience reminds us. Between Delhi and Canberra, the current story is good. Migration is building a bridge between our societies, with 4,50,000 Australians of Indian origin and Hinduism our fastest growing faith.
With India in an election year, Australians are paying unprecedented attention to the workings of Indian democracy and the movement for change in Indian society. Within Australia, governments and businesses are ready to engage with whichever leadership the world’s biggest exercise in democracy anoints — as a recent visit to Gujarat by New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell reminds us.
Likewise, Indians now take an interest in what happens in Australia’s corridors of power. Many took an interest in the fate of former Australian Labor party leader Julia Gillard, our first female prime minister, overthrown in a fleeting comeback by Kevin Rudd, before his defeat at the polls by conservative leader Tony Abbott last September. Gillard had proven herself a friend to India by overturning her party’s ban on uranium sales as well as driving efforts to address the student crisis in 2009 and 2010. Abbott is promising to maintain such a focus on India.
Misunderstandings over the treatment of Indian students and the sale of uranium are behind us. There is bipartisan support in Australia for uranium exports to India, in line with the same standards we ask of other customers. The safeguards agreement currently being negotiated should discriminate neither against India nor for it.
On the student issue, Lowy Institute polling shows that most Indians respect Australian institutions and values, even while many harbour concerns about continued…