When Ms Julia Gillard left office earlier this year, many in New Delhi had worried if her successor, Mr Kevin Rudd, would carry forward the gains in India-Australia relations that she had crafted. The new Prime Minister, who had previously led Australia between 2007 and 2010, was not expected to take a personal initiative in foreign policy matters given that he has his hands full with pressing domestic concerns. Also, he has often been perceived as more ‘pro-China' than ‘pro-India'. And his earlier opposition to Australia supplying uranium to India because New Delhi has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty had done little to endear him to South Block. Few in India had forgotten that when he came to power in 2007, he was quick to reverse his predecessor John Howard's decision to allow uranium exports. But then again, it was Mr Rudd who in 2009 had come to New Delhi and elevated the India-Australia relationship to a ‘strategic partnership'. Now, if the Rudd Government's outline for Australia's future engagement with India is anything to go by, fears of a lull in the India-Australia bilateral can be put to rest. The ‘country strategy', released late last month by the Prime Minister, is part of the larger ‘Australia in the Asian Century' plan that focuses on Australia's five major relationships in Asia: China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. The foundation for this plan was of course laid by the Gillard Government, but the fact that the Rudd regime has demonstrated equal commitment to it, augurs well for India. It signals that there is consensus in Canberra that India should be an important partner for Australia. This is in India's interest too since the two countries have a strong value-based relationship that stands on a collective commitment to democracy, diversity and civil liberties.
As the Strategy document points out, of Australia's five Asian partnerships, it is its relationship with India that has the most potential for growth. Canberra is determined to bridge the gap by putting businesses at the forefront. Currently, India is Australia's 10th largest trading partner with trade worth $17.5 billion; the Strategy aims to triple two-way trade by 2025. That would make India one of Australia's top five trading partners, and the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, already in the works, should help significantly. Regional security is another key area of cooperation as both countries want to keep the sea-lanes of the Indo-Pacific free and open for business. Towards that end, greater collaboration has been envisaged at international forums such as the East Asia Summit and the G-20. Finally, the emphasis on people-to-people contacts through collaborations in the social sector, media and education — think of the growing Indian diaspora in Australia, the hugely successful Oz Fest in India and the introduction of Hindi classes in Australian schools — should go a long way in strengthening the India-Australia relationship.