Prior to his first visit to India, Shadow Minister for Trade Jason Clare expressed his surprise that Australia does almost the same level of trade with New Zealand as they do with India, even though New Zealand has but a quarter of the population of Delhi.
“Australian companies are comfortable doing business with South Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, unfortunately they have not included North Asia in their plans. And I find that surprising as India in North Asia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies,” he told Indian Link.
During his tour of India, he said that with trade becoming fundamental for global peace and stability and preventing the US-China kind of trade wars, it is vital to push for an Indo-Pacific free trade zone like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) that should include India.
APEC is a free trade agreement among 21 Pacific Rim member economies to which India has been seeking admission. It includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, the US and Vietnam.
Australia has been pushing India’s case for induction into the APEC, as well as in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Promoting Indian membership of these bodies has bipartisan support in Australia irrespective of the party in power, Clare revealed.
“The world is different today from what it was years ago when the United Nations was founded. India is poised to become the world’s third largest economy and requires to be represented at the UNSC… it has Australia’s support,” Clare said.
He referred to the report released last year by the Australian government titled “India Economic Strategy to 2035: Navigating from potential to delivery” authored by its former High Commissioner in New Delhi Peter Varghese which argues that India should be brought into the APEC.
“For Australia, India is a partner in seeking to forge regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific and so needs to be part of the APEC. India needs to represent the Indo-Pacific in APEC, which doesn’t make sense without India,” Clare said. “As partners in the Indo-Pacific we are each grappling with the implications of the fading of US strategic predominance in the region,” he added.
In this connection, the Australian politician pointed to the revival of the quadrilateral initiative – “Quad” – that was revived a year ago involving India, Australia, Japan and the US as a “welcome initiative on strategic issues.”
The Quad of democratic countries advocate a free and open Indo-Pacific for shared peace and prosperity. “If countries like India, China, Australia need to achieve their growth goals we need peace and stability in the region. Over the long term we need to aim for an APEC free trade agreement that involves the major powers like US, China, India, Australia, Indonesia,” Clare said.
Referring to the ongoing US-China trade war, he said that a “lot of people in the US and UK are worried about trade endangering jobs”, but for Australia it is important to grow its trade with countries of the region.”Both Australia and India see China as an important part of inclusive regional institutions,” the Australian Shadow Trade Minister said.
On India’s chances of APEC membership, he pointed to the hopeful fact of APEC members also being involved in the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes India. RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the six Asia-Pacific states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand).
“APEC members are involved in the RCEP discussions, so it is a logical next step for India to becoming part of APEC,” Clare said, adding that he is hopeful about the RCEP negotiations concluding this year.
According to the “India Economic Strategy” report, no single market over the next 20 years will offer more growth opportunities for Australia than India. The report targets Australian exports to India to grow from $15 billion in 2017 to around $45 billion by 2035 and outward Australian investments to India rise from $10.3 billion to over the $100 billion mark, reflecting a transformational expansion of the relationship. “Australians have been hesitant about doing business outside the country and they have to be bold about seizing opportunities overseas,” Clare said.
One of the ways to engage more with India, Clare had said in his interview prior to his departure, is to have more frequent direct flights between India and Australia. “Currently there is only one airline which is flying direct between the two countries,” he pointed out. “With China, there are 10 direct daily flights, and there are 14 flights a day to Singapore.”
But when pressed on whether the Federal government should offer incentives to airlines to increase frequency, Clare deflected it back to the state governments to take a lead in this matter.
But the Shadow Minister did promise that should the Labor party come into power this year, there will be double the number of trade missions going to India. “We will also encourage and implement internship programmes where young Australians and Indians can go and live and work between the two countries. That will build up good understanding and hopefully business opportunities,” he said.
In New Delhi, the Shadow Minister also took part in a CII sponsored meeting with representatives of Indian industry like Wipro, Aditya Birla Group, and Vikram Solar, as well as institutions like Amity University which have either an established presence in Australia or are looking to do business here.
Biswajit Choudhury in India and Pawan Luthra in Sydney