The Australians used to say that the India-Australia relationship was based on Curry, Cricket, and Commonwealth. While the first two are still relevant, India no longer needs Australia as a gateway to Western economic and political forums. Instead India is an Asian power with a pressing need to modernise its economy. In this context, Mr Abbott’s visit should be about a lot more than the sale of uranium.
The uranium deal is important since India and Australia have been talking about it since the times of Prime Minister John Howard and it is finally coming to fruition (interestingly, Howard was upset that India did not support him for the vice-presidency of the International Cricket Council plaintively complaining on national television that he could not understand Indian opposition since he was in favour of selling uranium to India). For a power-starved India, nuclear energy will be one of multiple solutions to be thrown at solving this problem. The question is how quickly can this become operational? Or will it drag on in true Indian bureaucratic fashion?
There are, however, other areas where India should welcome Australian expertise with healthcare, tourism, security, and education being the main sectors where cooperation can be expanded. The Australians are good at delivering healthcare over long distances and this can be useful in an India where setting up hospitals in remote areas is a problem. Tourism is an area where the Australians excel and where India has enormous untapped potential. Creating a tourist-friendly India with a world class service industry is one of the easy areas for the Indian government to focus on. India’s internal security sector has seen improvements since the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks but a lot still needs to be done and the Australians have a fairly good record with internal security and the surveillance of their maritime borders. In this context, India has been seeking to purchase drones from the US but it should also be looking at a country like Australia to co-develop remotely piloted vehicles.
But one of the key areas in which the two countries could collaborate is education. As I have written elsewhere, Australia is an educational power that punches well above its weight in that it is one of the top five destinations for international students. Indian demographers keep stressing the fact that the country has a large dividend in the form of millions of young people. Youth is a necessary but not sufficient advantage in a globalised world because these young people have to be trained to be functional in the global market. India has a problem there because it has a shortage of young people with effective English skills to contribute effectively in a globalised work environment. Nor are most Indian universities educating well-grounded students with adequate critical thinking skills. Australia has reformed its education market by making it easier for genuine students to get visas and to give two years post-study employment to them - after all at its peak in 2009 there were 491,565 international students in Australia. In this new environment it may be easier to lure back the Indian students who moved away from Australia earlier in this decade.
Further, India also needs a growing workforce of electricians, plumbers, welders, and carpenters who can work to 21st century building standards - and this can only come through a serious investment in establishing community colleges in India that provide such vocational skills. This is an area where Australian investment and skills can be sought.
The low-hanging fruit for the Modi government may be to get the Australians to facilitate Indian investments in Australia. Tony Abbott’s government has been pragmatic about this and has cleared the Adani Group’s US$15.5 billion investment in the Carmichael Coal Project in Queensland. Other investments are likely to follow.
But the most important thing Mr Modi can do is to signal to the Australians - and indeed to all other countries - that his government is moving away from bureaucratic inertia, a glacial decision-making process, corruption, and a swarm of red tape since these constraints make it difficult to invest in India. In fact, the term used to describe the view of global corporations on India now is India Fatigue. If Mr Modi wants to rapidly develop the country he has to correct this perception and let leaders like Mr Abbott know that he means business.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.