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Why India is finally the next big thing for Australia

Photo: Getty/TND

India has for a long time been the next big thing on Australia’s foreign policy and economic horizons, but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s trip this week is the latest indication that moment may have arrived.

“Our relationship with India is strong, but it can be stronger,” Mr Albanese said on the weekend.

He leaves on Wednesday for a three-day trip that includes a stop in Ahmedabad in western India, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first rose in politics.

(The fourth Test between Australia and India is being played in the city this week at Narendra Modi Stadium and the prime ministers will attend the fourth day notwithstanding some complaints about the disruption).

But the visit is a sign of relations now much broader than a shared interest in Test matches.

Diversifying interests

In recent weeks there has been a rush of Australian delegations to the country by Treasurer Jim Chalmers, Education Minister Jason Clare and Foreign Minister Penny Wong all visited India recently.

Mr Albanese goes with Trade Minister Don Farrell and Resources Minister Madeleine King and a delegation of more than 20 chief executives.

“Australia has been trying to improve trade ties with India and impact the overall bilateral relationship for a long time,” said Pradeep Taneja, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Melbourne.

“At times, it seemed like it was more of a one-way effect. But what we’ve seen now is that it has become very much of bilateral effort.”

India is expected to officially overtake China as the world’s largest country by population when the results of a national census are released next month.

Fleshing out an existing free trade agreement will be high on the agenda.

One major Australian export is already surging: Some 44,000 Indian students applied to study here in the second half of last year, a number that exceeded those from China for the first time.

With billions of dollars of trade sanctions from China not yet lifted, the only market of the same size and an economy growing at 7 per cent a year presents obvious opportunity.

Security interests

A greater spur for the trip has been the changes to international security that have brought two nations closer.

“Trade has been the beneficiary,” Dr Taneja said. “But the primary focus of the relationship is security and that has a lot to do with Australia’s recent experience with China.”

In New Delhi for the G20 last week Senator Wong said India was a critical regional power.

“There is no reshaping of the Indo-Pacific without India,” she said.

This has been a major foreign policy priority since the day after its election.

Mr Albanese had a new passport hurriedly processed to fly to a leaders summit for what is known as the Quad, an international grouping composed of Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

Its members reject China’s characterisation of the loose partnership as NATO for the Pacific Ocean.

In foreign policy jargon it is a “security dialogue” formed as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing dominance in the region.

“This is the first time that Australia and India are part of a security-oriented partnership,” Dr Taneja said.

India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar called on Mr Albanese last month, which was his third visit to Australia in 18 months and they discussed naval exercises to be held by Quad countries in Australia this year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will follow with a visit for a Quad leader’s summit in Sydney, only the second by an Indian leader in nearly 50 years (he visited in 2014).

It is, he says, a partnership based on shared interests as international relations becomes less about clearly drawn dividing lines.

India has clashed frequently with China over a shared border, but it is not formally allied with America and continues to import oil and military material from Russia, a relationship stretching back decades.

Senator Wong said last week that Australia understood this complicated relationship meant New Delhi had been less vocal about the invasion of Ukraine.

She also played a dead bat to questions about the banning of a BBC documentary about Mr Modi’s time as the Governor of Gujarat and alleged human rights abuses against an Indian minority population.

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