Having a first tier relationship with India is important, says Harinder Sidhu

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaUpdated: Jan 24, 2019, 09:23 PM IST


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In many ways, things have picked up while you've been serving here because the new dimensions of the India-Australia relationship in a sense started over the past five or six years.

Harinder Sidhu, Australia's High Commissioner to India , spoke to WION on a range of topics. Excerpts 

WION: Now you are representing the country of your destination or adoption, in the country of your origin. Is that an asset or is that a challenge? 

SIDHU: I think it's overwhelmingly been an asset. When I set out to argue the case to come to India as the High Commissioner, it was entirely from a professional perspective. The professional excitement of coming to India as High Commissioner is that this is still an evolving relationship between Australia and India. A High Commissioner has a great capacity to shape that relationship. And it wasn't till I got here that I started to realize that my origins have enriched my ability to shape that relationship, to connect with the country. So it has been so far personally as well as professionally rewarding. 

 WION: So when you've been to different parts of India or in Delhi itself when you met people, how have they responded to you as a person of Indian origin representing another country?

 SIDHU: Well, with great warmth actually and that's been terrific you know, I have been very warmly welcomed. I think Indians everywhere, and this is very powerfully the case since I've been here, tend to adopt the successes of people of Indian origin overseas and so, it's seen as much as an Indian success as an Australian success in my appointment.

WION: In many ways, things have picked up while you've been serving here because the new dimensions of the India-Australia relationship in a sense started over the past five or six years. The first time an Indian Defence Minister visited Australia was in 2013, and in 2014 the Australian Prime Minister had visited here in September and within two months the Indian Prime Minister was in a bilateral visit in addition to G-20 to Australia in November that year. Then, of course, the Australian Prime Minister visited in 2017, the Indian President visited in 2018. So during your tenure here, what is the kind of transformation and change that you are seeing in the relationship? 

 SIDHU: Yes, I think the effect of those visits that you talk about and we've seen them continue, we've seen an uptake in the tempo of engagement between the two sides not just in terms of ministerial visits, but let's just take defence activities for an example. It was traditional for us to do four or five defence activities with each other, be that talks or exercises or those sorts of things. In 2014 that went up to 11 activities, in 2018 this year that just passed, we had 38 individual defence activities between our two countries. What that's done is it has helped us see each other better, that we are building an understanding of what the other country is capable of and what we can gain from the relationship. We are also as a result, I think understanding each other better. One of the great mysteries, I think of history is why is it that two countries like Australia and India, that obviously have so much in common, have not really come together much closer than we have. But I'm absolutely delighted to see us rapidly moving down that path now. 

WION: So during your term here, are there any particular inflection points that you notice in the relationship or any particular choice of new words and phrases to describe the relationship that to you captured the new phase? 

 SIDHU: Well I think the use, increasingly by the Australian side, but I think also from the Indian side, I think we have now formed a shared adoption of the phrase Indo-Pacific. This is not new for Australia, by the way, we've been saying Indo-Pacific for about a decade. If you're Australia and half your coastline faces the Pacific and the other half faces the Indian Ocean, it makes absolute sense to see the Indo-Pacific as your strategic environment. More recently though, we've issued a Foreign Policy White Paper, we've had Defence White Papers. Australia has come to recognize that our strategic interest lies in a top tier. The phrase we use is the first tier or a top tier relationship with India. Foreign Minister Payne's use of the phrase 'strategic anchor' is also another dimension of how we see India, the importance with which we invest in our relationship with India in the region.  

 WION: I noticed that your Foreign Minister in one of her recent comments mentioned that almost 50% of Australia's exports go from Indian ocean ports.

SIDHU: Correct.

 WION: And 40% of overall trade flows through the Indian Ocean. In 2018, Australia brought out an India Economic Strategy Paper. What was the reason for bringing out a fairly strong and extensive document focusing on an economic strategy for partnership with India, and what did it contain? What are the kind of recommendations that are there? 

SIDHU: Well, that's a good question. I explained to you that we've been talking in strategic policy terms of the importance of having a first tier relationship with India. You've already said how we've accelerated that relationship and so much of that when we stop and look at it, has happened in the strategic policy field, be it in diplomatic talks or in military exercises or engagements. The surprise to us is that we haven't built an economic relationship too much and this is surprising for Australia because the model of our engagement with Asian countries has always been the economic relationship going ahead of a strategic relationship. So the government commissioned the India Economic Strategy in part to close this gap, to find ways through a long term strategy. It is a strategy of how we can build a strong economic relationship that is commensurate with a first tier relationship into the future out for the next 20 years. So it looks beyond individual government policies. It looks at trends in how we come together. We know that India's economic growth, makes it over time, a very powerful magnet for business and economic links and the strategy looks at how we can do that. It focuses on a framing which gets Australians to see India as a collection of states rather than a single-hold, start to appreciate the diversity in India and, to look at India also in terms of sectors that we can connect with.

WION: Are there any specific sectors that have been identified, that you would initially focus on? 

 SIDHU: Well, the strategy recommends focusing on 10 key sectors, four of which are, what they call leading sectors; which is education, agribusiness, resources and tourism and those are the sectors that are seen to have the greatest promise for building the backbone of the economic relationship. Importantly, education is seen as a flagship sector. The reason for that is not just because so many Indian students are going to Australia, but actually, because institution to institution links between educational institutions often open the door into other forms of engagement. For example, Australian Universities that are partnering with the Indian School of Mines in Dhanbad in Jharkhand, are also connecting that with Australian technologies, Australian businesses, Australian mining techniques, mine safety, a whole bunch of things come from the education relations. 

 WION: I was enthused to find that the Australian government has very quickly responded and in a sense accepted most of the recommendations and the Economic Strategy Document. So what's your sense of what has been the response of the Australian government to the recommendations that came?  

 SIDHU: Well, I think it's been very warmly welcomed. It's been helped by the fact that the author of the strategy, Peter Varghese is a very eminent Australian who has unrivaled credentials and understanding about India, is a person who is held in great esteem and respect. I must say we were a little bit daunted by the fact that, the strategy put forward 90 recommendations, but the government recognizes, I think the sheer power of what can happen if we were to adopt those recommendations. So the Prime Minister has embraced it. 

WION: Going beyond the economic to defence cooperation and you mentioned that there is an increased number and level of activities that are happening but beyond just activities, are you also looking at a partnership in terms of trade, technology, production? Which way is the defence relationship headed?

 SIDHU: You're right to say that we are doing a lot of activities, but often these activities are bit case by case. Many of the activities now flow from a comprehensive strategic partnership and we're working together operationally, largely. For example, in April this year, the third iteration of the Australia-India bilateral naval exercise will take place off the coast of Visakhapatnam. So much of it is sitting in the operational space and that's probably where we will build. Once you build that, then technology exchanges and industrial exchanges tend to flow and that is our hope that we build a three-dimensional defence relationship. 

WION: I wanted to now talk about something that of course interests a lot of people in India; the growing number of Indian origin population in Australia and I was looking at some of the figures and it suggests that the number today is almost 700,000

 SIDHU: That's right.

 WION: ...which puts the population at about 3% of Australia's population, which is more than that in the United States if you look at it in percentage terms.

SIDHU: Correct. Yeah.

WION: ...or in the United Kingdom, perhaps just below that in Canada. So what is the response in Australia to this growing numbers of Indian origin population? And it seems to have expanded rapidly really over the past decade. So what is the reason for that? How are they integrated into Australian society and how's the host country looking at this?

 SIDHU: Well, I think what often people don't recognize is that you're right, there's been a sudden growth in the Indian population in the last decade or so. I think the numbers of Indians settling in Australia has tripled in the last decade and for the last two or three years, skilled Indian migrants are the largest source of migrants across the board but we're no strangers to people coming into our country, to settle. Half of all Australians were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas, so either first or second generation migrants, we have over 200 different ethnicities living side by side in Australia. We are a hugely diverse, a very successful multicultural society. So those Indians who come to Australia to live are coming into a society that is used to absorbing people from many, many different backgrounds. But can I say this, that I think the Indian migrants to Australia have been particularly successful and particularly good at integrating and this goes back to the point I made earlier about the fact that our two countries actually are very alike and how we look at the world is very alike. It also helps that we both love cricket.

WION: Yes, of course, and it helps in particular if the Indian team goes to Australia and does very well. 

SIDHU: Yes. Well my congratulations to the Indian team of course, but it's significantly helped diplomacy because Indians seemed to like me all the more now that you have succeeded in Australia but it was historic. 

 WION: But also, as you mentioned, the Indian origin population in Australia in terms of education, skill levels, income levels is among the higher levels in Australia and I'm sure that helps but the fact that there is a commonality of political systems, values and a growing strategic convergence between the two countries, in your sense, would that facilitate a better acceptance of Indian origin population coming to Australia with skills? 

SIDHU: I think so. It is one thing to have skills, but I think it's quite another thing and it's very important to look at the world the same way, to understand that there are certain rules for behavior in society, to understand that we have national aspirations that align with Indian national aspirations, for example. I think it's a source of great support and comfort to the Indian population in Australia that they don't have to deal with divergence between their country of origin and their country of adoption. So I think that's all positive as you suggest.

 WION: You did mention that Australia really has one coastline on the Indian Ocean and one on the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific is a very important construct for Australia and besides the bilateral between Australia and India, there is a trilateral, at secretary level between India, Australia, Japan, and the quadrilateral involving the United States and in the context of the Indo-Pacific, when I was reading the Foreign Policy Strategy Paper for Australia, which came out in 2017, there seems to be a bit of a dilemma that the United States is Australia's main security partner and China is Australia's main trading partner and the trade with China is almost twice the trade with the United States. How is Australia reconciling this dichotomy in its equations and relationships? 

 WION: Well, I don't know if there actually is a dichotomy, to be honest. Yes, China is our major trading partner, but we have a huge economic relationship with the United States. As you say, the United States is our third largest trading partner. It is our largest investment partner by far. About 30% of investments in Australia come from the United States. China is our ninth largest source of investment. It's a very small part of the picture. I mean it's not insignificant, but it's not as big. So we have a very large economic relationship with the United States but while we have, you know, good friendly relations with both of them, with China and with the United States, only one of them is an ally and so there's a depth to the relationship that we have with the United States that doesn't exist really with China. All that said, I think it's always worth remembering that Australia is a strong economy. We've had 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth now. We are very resilient to shocks if we need to. We are very strong in security and military term. We are a regional power. So we can withstand the ups and downs of these relationships. We are able to deal with both the United States and with China, as peers really. So where we disagree, we will do so firmly and respectfully. We've done that with China on the South China Sea and we've done that with the United States by expressing, you know, our disagreement on their decision to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, for example. So it really doesn't pose that much of a struggle. Of course, it's something we have to think about. 

WION: Sure and sometime back there was a sense that especially under the Labor government some years ago, Australia was putting a lot of focus on its China relationship and then there was some controversy related to what was seen as Chinese interference in Australia's internal politics. The Economic Strategy Paper refers to the fact that Australia's main concern related to China is more the political system of China and therefore if that system becomes a dominating structure, the Asia Pacific region, then it's a challenge to how Australia looks at the world. So given all that, how are you seeing the relationship with China evolving for Australia in the context of the Indo-Pacific? 

 SIDHU: What we would like to see really is...I don't think it's in anyone's interest for China's economy to go badly. I think 140 countries have China as the largest trading partner. China's economic success is the backbone of global prosperity, I think it's fair to say. So we want a successful China but we also, and we've been very clear about this, we think it's very important that the rule of law is maintained, that countries continue to have the freedom to govern as they choose and to operate as they choose. At the Raisina dialogue, the opening speech was given by the Prime Minister of Norway. She said a really important thing. She said, 'when big countries follow the rule of law, small countries take notice'. There is a demonstration effect if countries stick by the rule of law. Democracy gives us enormous flexibility and I think that what Australia and India understand is that it gives us a great deal of inner strength and there is a power to democracy and so working with other democracies to reinforce the value of democracy, to try and protect it is very important. You mentioned foreign interference, Australia passed legislation, you know, to prevent foreign interference in our political process. We feel so strongly about that and you know, whether it comes from China, whether it comes from other sources, I think all of us are deeply concerned to find ways to preserve the integrity of our political and democratic processes. It's a very fundamental backbone to security in the region.

WION: In the Defence Policy Paper that Australia had brought out in 2016 and again in your Foreign Policy Strategy Paper of 2017, I saw repeated references to the concerns related to terrorism, the challenge of terrorism that confronts also Australia. So can you describe what is the kind of challenge you are facing and Australia's responses to dealing with that? 

 SIDHU: Yeah, so the thing with terrorism is, you know, it's an amorphous beast. It, you know, no sooner then you think you've tackled one part of the problem, then it's moved onto the next thing. Australia has faced a very serious threat, I think pretty much since 9/11. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, we lost 88 Australians in the Bali bombing. And ever since then, we have built a very strong counter-terrorist edifice inside our own country with legislation. Our primary concern at the moment is the growth of violent extremism and foreign terrorist fighters. So looking at how we can work with our communities in Australia, how we can tackle the foreign terrorist fighter issue is a big issue for us. 

 WION: And of course in India, we've been facing our own challenge of terrorism, sourced from Pakistan, cross border terrorism and all these terrorist groups tend to have linkages. It's a common challenge.

 SIDHU: Everybody's challenge is slightly different and I think this is why we need to work together, to share those perspectives and learnings. 

 WION: Sure. So you've also put a lot of focus on the people to people dimension of relationships and Australia itself is putting a lot of focus on its soft power and establishing linkages at the level of the people and recently Australia had done the Australia fest in India. So can you tell us a little bit about that? What was the approach? What did you do and till what time does it go on? 

 SIDHU: Aha. So, thank you for that. It's a very important project for mine. This goes back I think to the fact that I feel I have a foot in both camps and I believe very firmly that if we are to have a really serious relationship between our two countries, it has to be textured. We have to really understand each other. So the best way to do that is to share those things about each other that we find interesting at a people to people level. So Australia fest was launched in September last year in 2018. It's a six-month festival that runs through to the 30th of March this year, covering 75 events in 20 cities with the full gamut of what you would call culture in a very wide sense. So not just art and literature and performances, we've done some fantastic things on those things. For example, we brought the indigenous dance company, the Bangarra Company to perform at Qutub Minar but also food, MasterChef for example. The sorts of things that we really enjoy about each other, science and bringing science exhibitions, children's theater and, the grand finale, of course, will be not just an opera performance but also the visit of the Australian cricket team, hopefully to redeem our credentials for the one day internationals and the T-20s in about a month's time.

 WION: Well, I'm sure the people in India would be looking forward to that and to a fair match.

 SIDHU: Yeah.

 WION: And whatever be the outcome. As they say, 'may the best team win'.

 SIDHU: Yes, absolutely.

 WION: But while you've been serving in India, has there been any issue beyond just the professional work that has sort of got you involved with the level of commitment and passion, some cause that you've involved yourself in? 

SIDHU: Yeah, I think, again this is something that's been a personal observation. I think India does have tremendous challenges and it's really quite remarkable how India is rising to those challenges. So we're focused a little bit on the development side of the story and on the inclusion of people and one side has been some work that we've done through the High Commission that I've supported on disability and actually finding ways to build the capacity of people with disabilities to participate in society but the other has also been on gender equality. I think, you know, it is very true to say that India will not reap its demographic dividend unless women are part of that picture and women's health I think is a big part of that. So I've put my weight behind a campaign to raise awareness on cervical cancer, a cancer that is the largest killer of women, particularly in developing countries. One in four deaths in the world from cervical cancer happens in India. The tragedy of this is, it is utterly preventable. An Australian scientist, Professor Ian Frazer at the University of Queensland has developed the Human Papillomavirus vaccine, the HPV as its called but beyond vaccination, of course, simple screening, simple interventions can actually reduce the rate quite dramatically. So, you know, if there's one small piece of difference I can make through raising awareness, I think that will make a tremendous difference to the health of Indian women but also to the development of India down the track, healthy women raise healthy children and can participate fully in the community and the society. 

WION: Thank you. Thank you High Commissioner for your personal commitment to these very important issues and as our discussions showed that there is growing and significant convergence between our two countries on strategic and other issues. There is additional opportunity to be tapped in the economic dimension, but I think the people to people dimension is something that provides a solid foundation and basis for sustaining this relationship. Thank you. 

 SIDHU: Thank you very much.