There has been speculation that the relationship between two of the region's largest democracies, India and Australia has lost political momentum in the post Howard era. The Labour government has a different perception of the relationship, due in part to Kevin Rudd, first as PM and now as Foreign Minister, and has overseen a steady decline in interest of the top leaderships towards each other. The policy approach adopted by the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd caused enormous damage to this bilateral relationship with his foreign policy bias towards China and goodwill was further eroded when Australia lost billions in uranium sales to the sub-continent as India was not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
At this moment there also seems to be some inertia in the Indian foreign ministry to establishing a strategic partnership with Australia as it does not want to concentrate its limited foreign policy resources on a relationship which is slow to respond. India is instead focussing more on US, Europe and Japan instead and visits of Indian ministers to Australia have largely been symbolic and have not yielded any big announcements. The nature and size of partnerships announced during these visits is miniscule compared to deals signed by Indian ministers when they visit even smaller European countries.
Australian approach to improving relations with India is confused, fragmented and ad-hoc. Ever since the attacks on Indian students in Australia, the bureaucrats have scrambled to look for quick solutions. The approach has been to keep engaging in minor activities ranging from organising barbeques for students here to encouraging Indian journalists to visit Australia. The problem has been that many of the Indian students are vegetarian and often not amenable to barbeque type functions. In fact some of the Indians won't even use the free barbeques in picnic areas as they don't want to cook their meat on the same plate on which someone may have cooked beef. Also most of the Muslims insist on Halal meat and prefer to be vegetarians rather than eat something they cannot sure of. The free tour organised by Australian authorities for Indian journalists failed to generate any goodwill for Australia as senior journalists did not visit Australia and instead stuck to their stance of needling the Australian government. Some gave the trips to junior reporters to be treated as a training exercise.
The piecemeal approach to addressing crime against Indian students was akin to 'killing the goose that laid the golden eggs' and instead of addressing policing issues and resolving student concerns, the government took a different line and focussed on closing colleges and suddenly increasing regulation in the sector without analysing the impact this would have on the education sector. This resulted in Indian students looking for better options and Australia is now losing out on the lucrative Indian international student dollar to the UK, America, Canada and New Zealand.
The hue and cry raised over immigration has also muddied the waters with some of the more myopic Australian politicians desperately trying to increase the barriers to entry into Australia by adopting a shrill rhetoric and inflaming passions by raising xenophobic fears against immigration.
This has left people in Asian countries wondering why Australia is so angry over the presence of a few thousand illegal refugees when they are burdened by humanitarian refugees of magnitudes far exceeding these numbers.
Canada has put no limits on immigration numbers and yet has a flawless functioning immigration system. Educated people in today's world and people who qualify for Skilled Permanent Residency have multiple options available for immigration and competition to adopting Australia as a destination comes from other developed countries like Canada, UK and even USA. In 2008-09 in Australia, Indians formed the largest group of new permanent or temporary residents, with more than 85,000 arriving to study, work or settle here. But in 2009-10, the number of Indians arriving shrank by almost one third to just over 59,000.
In the past two years, despite the best efforts of the Australian foreign affairs department, the ill feeling for Australia in India has not subsided and anti-Australian sentiment has failed to recede. Come September, 2011 when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard shake hands at the CHOGM summit, the act would be purely symbolic as both the leaders continue to lose command, respect and popularity in their respective nations due to domestic issues.
For Australia - given the parlous political situation in which Julia Gillard presently finds herself and the continuing decline in the opinion polls, don't expect any changes in the uranium policy of the Australian government towards India. For India - with the burden of so many corruption cases and an administration beset by scandals along with internal bickering and a declining popularity, Manmohan Singh will not command the same respect he did during his initial term. To boost his image back home and to appeal to voters in Northern India, it is quite likely that he will rake up the issue of safety for Indian students in Australia which will continue to irk Australia.
The existing trade relationship between Australia and India is much skewed towards coal and gold and needs to expand. India also has key concerns over giving access to its farm markets as part of the proposed Free Trade Agreement, which Australia would like to promote.
However there is hope for better cooperation. With Western Australia firmly positioned as a major driver for Australia's growth and the exponential increase in exports of minerals through the ports in this state, Australia has woken up to the need for protection of the sea lanes around this state and its proximity to Indian coastal waters means Australian and Indian interests will need to converge to ward off any external threats.
There is a push for uranium sales to India since Kevin Rudd left the office of PM
With Energy Minister Martin Fergusson now in favour of selling Uranium to India, if this is to be achieved, Julia Gillard will need to summon all her political courage to face down a 'Green' dominated Senate to allow the sale of Uranium to India.
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