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Modi in Australia: An unprecedented level of engagement

Modi in Australia: An unprecedented level of engagement

Narendra Modi has just concluded his first visit to Australia, the first by any Indian prime minister in 28 years. Combined with Prime Minister Abbott's visit to India in September and multilateral interactions at the East Asia Summit and G20, this marks an unprecedented level of engagement between the two Indian Ocean democracies.

The visit resulted in a number of agreements, most significantly a Framework for Security Cooperation in recognition of expanding defence and security ties between Australia and India. Prime Minister Abbott also voiced his intention to conclude a free trade agreement with India by the end of 2015. If he can pull it off, this will be enormously significant in enhancing economic ties between the two countries.

Modi also used the visit to reach out to Australia's Indian-Australian community. India became Australia's biggest source of permanent migrants in 2011-2012, and Indian-born Australians have significantly higher income, education and employment levels than the overall Australian population.

Should the Modi Government be able to translate the goodwill of the Indian-Australian diaspora to economic and political advantage, it has the potential to become a particularly influential resource. 

Receiving a rockstar-like reception during his address to a 16,000-strong crowd of Indian community groups in Sydney, the Australian public was able to witness first-hand the extraordinary wave of support that swept Modi to power in the May elections. The Sydney rally mirrored an event held at Madison Square Garden during Modi's visit to the US earlier this year. [fold]

It is clear that the Modi Government is attempting to tap into the dynamism of the Indian diaspora in order to boost its own economy and enhance engagement with key Indo-Pacific partners. As I have argued before, Australia would be wise to similarly harness the human capital of its important migrant communities in order to pursue its interests in the region.

Indian-Australian drummers outside of Allphones Arena, 17 November 2014. (Lowy Institute/Brendan Thomas-Noone.)

Modi's prowess as an orator was again on display in Canberra yesterday, when he became the first Indian prime minister to address the Australian parliament. Refreshingly, his remarks went beyond the usual platitudes of common democratic values, love of cricket and shared World War I history, and considered the role that an enhanced India-Australia partnership could play in the region. As he outlined his view of Australia 'as a major partner in every area of our national priority', noting that Australia will no longer be at the periphery but at the centre of India's vision, it became clear that India is now beginning to take its partnership with Australia seriously.

Closer relations with Australia also tie into Modi's broader vision for India's role in East and Southeast Asia. The Modi Government has devoted considerable effort to deepening its partnerships in the region as part of its recently enhanced 'Act East Policy'. Focusing on key partners such as ASEAN, Japan, Vietnam and Australia, the Modi Government has signalled its intention to play a greater role in the region, potentially acting as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. If it is able to carefully manage Chinese sensitivities (no mean feat), cautious Indian engagement has the potential to act as a stabilising force in the region.

For the first time in many years it appears Australia and India are recognising the full potential of their ties, and are on the same page in terms of what they want to get out of the bilateral relationship. Both sides must now work to maintain this momentum in order to transform the relationship into an enduring partnership.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.

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