Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrives in India today to meet with India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Abbott's trip will be the first bilateral visit by a foreign leader since Modi assumed office, and if handled well, could lay the groundwork for a deeper Australia-India relationship.
So what might be on the cards for discussion between the two leaders?
It has been reported that Australia and India have now concluded negotiations on the civil nuclear agreement, which began in 2012 under the Gillard Government. If all goes to plan, this agreement will be formally signed during the visit, establishing the framework for Australian uranium to be exported to India for civilian purposes. Aside from assisting India to achieve its goal of upgrading its nuclear power capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020, the conclusion of the agreement will remove what has been a major source of mistrust and an impediment to closer relations in recent years.
With Trade Minister Andrew Robb accompanying Abbott on this visit and Indian economic growth starting to bounce back from the historic lows in 2012-2013, we can expect that trade and investment will feature prominently in discussions with India's new leadership. India is already Australia's fifth-largest export market and tenth-largest bilateral trading partner, though the trading relationship registered a decline of 19.5% in the last financial year. The conclusion of the civil nuclear agreement may pave the way for more progress on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, discussion of which is likely to be on the cards.
Having just returned from a successful trip to Japan, Modi's first bilateral visit outside India's immediate neighbourhood, regional security is likely to be fresh on his mind. So this is an opportune moment to invest in the Australia-India strategic partnership. During the visit of the former Indian Defence Minister to Australia last year, it was announced that Australia and India would partake in bilateral naval exercises from 2015. Abbott should move quickly to put this back on the agenda. As has been argued by my Lowy Institute colleagues, Australia and India are well positioned to play a leadership role among middle powers in the Indo-Pacific, and maritime security is a natural avenue for the two to expand their cooperation.
Australia's education relationship with India has begun to bounce back since the low point of the 2009-10 student crisis. Education is already Australia's largest service-related export to India, and with a million people entering India's labour market each month there is enormous potential for Australian vocational education and training providers to deliver vital skills to India's burgeoning youth population.
The issue of asylum seekers could be something of a wildcard in this visit, and has already caused some friction between Australia and India’s new government . Given India's potential as an important economic, diplomatic and strategic partner for Australia, Abbott should exercise caution in allowing a divisive domestic issue to unduly influence his government’s foreign policy priorities. If he does choose to raise asylum seekers with Modi, Abbott must carefully manage how discussions are portrayed externally, especially in India's vociferous news media.
The prime ministers will have the opportunity to meet again at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane, and Abbott should use his time in India to encourage Mr Modi to undertake a full bilateral visit in November. Modi's government has received the strongest electoral mandate in thirty years, and this week's visit will set the tone for Australia-India relations under the new leadership in both countries. For the visit to be successful, Abbott should avoid the continuation of largely transactional relations with India and instead use this opportunity to inaugurate a deeper partnership with this important Indo-Pacific neighbour.