An opportunity lost for Scott Morrison in India

An opportunity lost for Scott Morrison in India

Australia PM cancels visit amidst burning problem at home
Venkat Raman
Auckland, January 5, 2020

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit held in Japan on June 29, 2019 (Pool Picture)

With bushfires continuing to rage across Australia and with growing criticism over the way he has been handling the crisis, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced yesterday (January 4, 2020) that he was cancelling his visit to India and Japan.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, following a telephone conversation with Mr Morrison, that the Australian leader may visit India later in the year.

The Raisina Dialogue

Mr Morrison was due in New Delhi for talks on a number of significant issues and equally important, deliver the keynote address at the Raisina Dialogue on January 13, 2020.

This was a rare honour, for, the event would witness the assembly a number of foreign ministers, experts and international leaders including former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

A selfie from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Narendra Modi on Twitter)

The Raisina Dialogue is a multilateral conference held every year in New Delhi to address the most challenging issues facing the global community. World leaders in policy, business, media and civil society deliberate on a wide range of pertinent international policy matters.

The Dialogue is structured as a multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral discussion, involving heads of state, cabinet ministers and local government officials, as well as major private sector executives, members of the media and academics.

The conference is hosted by the Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with India’s External Affairs Ministry.

The Weekend Australian quoted Dhruv Jaishankar, Director, US Initiative at the Foundation and son of India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as saying that Morrison’s invitation to headline the conference was “a significant gesture that reflects where the relationship (between the two countries) is now.”

Strengthening Defence ties

Another lost opportunity is the Prime-Ministerial level talks on strengthening defence ties, which would have to wait until Mr Morrison is able to visit India.

Australia and India and members of the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,’ along with Japan and the US. The ‘Quad’ concerns itself mostly with communications on defence matters in the context of China’s growing military strength.

In addition, the increasing influence of China in the South Pacific is a matter of concern for India, which has since long been keen to seek full membership of regional blocs such as the Pacific Islands Forum.

Morrison’s visit included signing of the Logistics Support Agreement, enabling Australia and India to use each other’s military bases for logistical support.

Bilateral trade and FTA

‘Taking bilateral trade to the next higher level’ has been the expressed desire of both countries and Mr Morrison’s visit would have helped to achieve this objective. Two-way trade between Australia and India was A$29.1 billion at the end of 2018 of which Australian exports were valued at A$21.1 billion. Total Indian investment in Australia was at an impressive A$15.5 billion at the end of 2018, up from A$600 million in 2006. Australian investment in India was A$13.9 billion.

In 2018, the Australian government launched its India Economic Strategy 2035 to engage more closely with India and make it Australia’s priority economic partner.

According to the Canberra based Australian Trade and Investment Commission, India would need, in the next 20 years, many of Australia’s goods and services including education, agriculture, energy, resources, tourism, healthcare, financial services, infrastructure, science and innovation and sports.

“The India Economic Strategy is an ambitious plan to transform Australia’s economic partnership with India out to 2035. Australia has set itself the goal by 2035 to lift India to its top three export markets, to make it the largest destination in Asia for Australian outward investment,” it said.

Although India is averse to discussing any concessions on tariffs on agricultural, diary, meat and poultry products, there have been some indications of rebooting discussions on a Free Trade Agreement. Mr Morrison may have taken the opportunity of his visit to initiate talks but any hope of a quick resolution on this count would be far-fetched and distant from reality.

The devastating bush fires

None of the above currently occupies the mind of Mr Morrison.

People being evacuated from Mallacoota, Victoria, on a landing craft to MV Sycamore, during bushfire relief efforts (Photo: AFP/Royal Australian Navy- Courtesy RNZ)

Bushfires raging across the country-New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania have seen more than five million hectares of land destroyed. Nine people and almost 500 million animals including mammals, birds, reptiles and others have perished since the past few weeks.

Mr Morrison has announced deployment of 3000 Australian Defence Force reservists and a further investment of A$20 million to lease additional firefighting aircraft.

The Navy’s largest amphibious ship, HMAS Adelaide has sailed from Sydney to join HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore in efforts to evacuate people from fire-affected communities.

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