NEW DELHI/SYDNEY (Reuters): Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrives in India on Wednesday seeking to strengthen the new momentum in ties between the two countries through deeper trade, investment and defence relations.
The three-day visit by Albanese, the first by an Australian prime minister since 2017, comes days ahead of a visit by Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, another member of the so-called Quad grouping that seeks to counter China’s growing domination in the Indo-Pacific region.
Quad includes the United States and India besides Australia and Japan. Australia is due to host a Quad leaders summit in Sydney later this year.
“India and Australia share warm and friendly relations based on common values and democratic principles. The Strategic Partnership between the two countries was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in June 2020,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement ahead of the visit.
Explainer: Why Japan’s ‘shunto’ spring wage talks matter
“Prime Minister Albanese’s visit is expected to provide further momentum to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.”
Speaking in Sydney on Tuesday, Albanese said Australia wanted “greater diversity in who we trade with – and greater variety in what we trade, meaning our economy is more resilient and more secure”.
The two countries signed last year a free trade agreement called the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), the first signed by India with a developed country in a decade.
It has resulted in the immediate reduction of duty to zero on 96% of Indian exports to Australia in value and zero duty on 85% of Australia’s exports to India.
However, a much larger Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement has been stuck in negotiations for over a decade. Discussions began in 2011 but were suspended in 2016 as the talks were gridlocked.
The negotiations resumed in 2021 but a deal has yet proved to be elusive. Australian Minister for Trade and Tourism Don Farrell is a part of Albanese’s delegation and the visit is expected to provide an opportunity to hasten the ambitious deal.
Bilateral trade was $27.5 billion in 2021 and India says it has the potential to nearly double to $50 billion in five years under the ECTA.
Albanese begins his visit in the western city of Ahmedabad in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the two leaders will do some cricket diplomacy by watching the opening of the fourth and final cricket test match between the two countries at a stadium named after Modi.
He then flies to Mumbai where he will become the first foreign leader to be taken on board India’s indigenously produced aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on Thursday. The aircraft carrier was commissioned into the Indian Navy in September.
The Albanese-Modi talks in New Delhi on Friday will be the first meeting of the annual summit announced by the two countries last year.
Trade, investment, defence, education and supply chains of critical minerals are important aspects of the relationship between the two countries, former Indian high commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri, said.
The business delegation traveling with Albanese will participate in an Australia-India CEO Forum, which Suri said was encouraging.
“It is not just about a free-trade agreement, but also about investment. Australian companies have been, I believe, shy of investing in India. The same holds true for Australian superannuation funds,” he said.
Suri said the relationship was also critical in the context of Quad.
Last week, Quad foreign ministers met in Delhi and, without naming China, denounced the increased tensions in the South and East China seas, and the militarisation of the disputed territories in the area.
The four Quad navies are scheduled to come together in August for the annual Malabar naval wargaming exercise, to be hosted by Australia for the first time.
“The Quad is now emerging as a pretty significant voice to counter the threat that we perceive,” Suri said. “If we are to reduce our dependence and the world’s dependence on China…then working together becomes important.”