by Indrani Bagchi

NEW DELHI: With India walking out of RCEP and signalling an intent to pursue closer economic relations bilaterally, Australia is probably near the top of that list in Asia.

As an early step, after Australia former foreign secretary Peter Varghese came out with an India Economic Strategy last year, former secretary in MEA Anil Wadhwa has also authored an Australia Strategy paper a draft of which was shared on Monday at an interaction with Varghese and select media by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

The India report, which awaits final touches, Wadhwa said, "We highlighted that the report covers opportunities across emerging areas like mining, resources, education, medical and water technologies, space technology and manufacturing which have major relevance in the future aspirational plans of both countries, said an official readout. Further improvements on the regulation of visas and mining developments would be a focus on the finalisation of the report. The two reports together will create a profile for future engagement between India and Australia."

Varghese pointed to a growing problem regarding the Australia-India economic relationship. While the Australian government had endorsed his recommendations for immediate and short term implementation and assigned four cabinet ministers to pursue the recommendations, big business in Australia had not yet been sold on the India story. "At the business level, I wish I could report an enthusiastic response to the report. The big end of town doesn't seem to be taking India into account to the extent to which I think it should be," Varghese said.

Addressing journalists, Varghese said India “matters” to Australia because of its scale, the complementarities of the two economies. Varghese in his report had highlighted 10 sectors that Australia could focus on and 10 Indian states where to train their sights. Wadhwa in his report too has listed 10 sectors. For instance, resources, tourism, and education are some things that Australia expects to score in India. Wadhwa said the Indian side was looking at animation/gaming, fintech, banking solutions, high tech textile designing, medical tech, water tech as the next-generation areas for cooperation and investments.

There are differences in the way in which both countries approach to trade, which would have to be reconciled, Varghese said.

“Australia and India have different ambitions when it comes to negotiations on trade liberalisations. India has had a mixed experience, therefore, the level of ambition in India for FTAs have been lower. In Australia, our central position has been a predisposition to FTAs being a useful tool to advance the Australian economy.” However, on the investment front, India is much more attractive, he said, as it becomes more open.
The Australia report, Varghese said, had recommended that the India-Australia economic partnership agreement should be on hold until RCEP negotiations were done. But now that India is out of RCEP — he said, Australia was still hopeful that India would join — the bilateral agreement has got another lease of life.