Translate rhetoric into reality

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia underscores the enormous work that India and Australia need to put in to give their bilateral relationship substance and meaning.

During his visit, the two sides signed agreements on tourism, transfer of sentenced prisoners, social security, art and culture, and combating trafficking in narcotics.

While these are welcome, they are unlikely to give bilateral cooperation the energetic leg-up it so badly needs. Economic cooperation, for instance, is lacklustre.

Bilateral trade is worth a paltry US$15 billion, way below the $50 billion it was to touch in 2015. India and Australia have pledged now to “speed up work” towards a comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

In his address to the Australian Parliament, Modi spoke of Australia as India’s “foremost partner” in the region, promising that it would not remain at the “periphery of India’s vision but at the centre of its thought.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott in turn spoke about the “natural partnership emerging from shared values and interests and strategic maritime locations.” Such effusive rhetoric, while heart-warming, has been articulated in the past too.

It took bilateral relations nowhere. It is time India and Australia translate their lofty rhetoric to performance on the ground.

India could draw inspiration from Sino-Australian cooperation. Although China and Australia have little in common – Australia is a close military ally of the US – their bilateral trade is worth $150 billion.

The two signed a comprehensive free trade agreement recently. While Sino-Australian cooperation grows by leaps and bounds, India is exulting over the “the rockstar reception” that Modi received from the Indian diaspora and the standing ovation he got in the Australian Parliament.

Warm atmospherics are important as are India and Australia’s oft professed shared passion for cricket and curry, but only to set the tone for bilateral interaction.

In the long run, concrete achievements are necessary and in this regard India and Australia have little to show so far. Even the civilian nuclear agreement that was signed in September amid much jubilation seems to be caught in a tangle in its homestretch.

That it took 28 years for an Indian prime minister to visit Australia lays bare India’s inept diplomacy and misplaced foreign policy priorities. Modi’s visit represents a step towards course correction.

He must build on the goodwill generated during this visit. He could draw on the support of the Indian diaspora to promote India’s economic and other interests in Australia.

Building bridges over their shared concerns in the Indian Ocean could lessen the distance between India and Australia.

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