India’s withdrawal from RCEP disappointing, says outgoing Australian Ambassador Harinder Sidhu

India’s withdrawal from RCEP disappointing, says outgoing Australian Ambassador Harinder Sidhu

K V Prasad and Sandeep Dikshit 
Tribune News Service
New Delhi, February 4

The latest to deplete the ranks of Indian-origin Ambassadors posted in New Delhi will be Harinder Sidhu, who will pack her bags after four years as Australia’s High Commissioner. The period saw never-before proximity in strategic and people-to-people ties between the two countries, which she says will stay that way in the short-term.

Sidhu’s four-year tenure coincided with India becoming the largest source country for migration to Australia. There was also an increase in intensity and complexity of military interactions which was a far cry from the Cold War years when there was none despite both countries sharing cultural commonalities bequeathed by colonialism.

Sidhu was interviewed by The Tribune’s K V Prasad and Sandeep Dikshit.  

Australia-India relations have never been better. The Adani coal mines in Queensland were a factor in Australian PM Scott Morrison’s comeback election win. Both leaders have kept in touch. Morrison had earlier phoned PM Modi to congratulate him on his election win and assure him that the Adani coal mine will not be stalled. It was a pity he was unable to come to India last December. When is he planning to complete the unfinished business with PM Modi as the ‘Two Plus Two’ meeting of Indian and Australian Foreign and Defence secretaries was to set the stage?

At the outset, our PMs have a very strong and very positive relationship built on the very substantial relationship we have between our two countries. In that context, we were very delighted that PM Modi had invited PM Morrison to visit India and to attend the Raisina Dialogue. Of course, for very understandable reasons PM Morrison was unable to attend because he had to attend to bushfire emergency in Australia.

We are working now, and PM Morrison did say he was hoping to reschedule the visit at the earliest possible date. We are working to see if we can reschedule the visit as early as possible. We are hopeful to reschedule the visit in the coming months. Hopefully, it will take place sooner rather than later.

What are the gains you are looking forward from the ‘Two plus Two’ meeting and whether you plan to join the Indo-US-Japan Malabar series of naval exercises as the fourth partner?

We held the third iteration of our Two plus two on December 9 last year. In both the ‘Two plus Two’ and during the PM’s visit, we were looking forward to bring everything together and to create a higher platform for the relationship going forward. The PM’s visit can always focus on the relationship and lift it to another level. That is what we are hoping the PM’s visit would do…it would consolidate what we have gained so far and take it forward.

The ‘Two plus Two’ largely focused broadly on foreign policy and strategic policy relationship that we have. India and Australia have such a strong relationship now and the backbone of that relationship is strategic and foreign policy relationship…the dialogues we are having, our shared Indo-Pacific outlook…the military and defence relationship which is extremely which is very active. We are now seeing more Australian ships stopping at ports in India, Australian Navy Ship HMAS Toowoomba stopped last week at Mumbai.

In April last year, we had the largest bilateral naval exercise off the shore of Visakhapatnam, called AUSINDEX that happens every two years. That was a really significant step forward. What we are seeing is that the intensity and complexity of the defence relationship is underpinning a lot of what we are doing.

There is a lot more trust and a lot more confidence between Australia and India. The Secretary level ‘Two plus Two’ meeting was in part looking forward to the PM’s visit but it also shared perspectives on the big strategic issues we are all grappling with.

At the end it was very clear while we might have some differences of approach or emphasis, broadly speaking both countries see things in very similar ways.

This explains why we are able to work in different formats in trilaterals or even in the quadrilaterals, in the military sphere… in a range of strategic policy areas such as counter-terrorism or cyber. On any set of issues, we are ready to work very well together.

India’s ‘Two plus Two’ with the US and Japan are at the Ministerial level while that with Australia is at the Secretary level. How soon will the India-Australia ‘Two plus Two’ be upgraded to the Ministerial level involving S Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh?

It works very, very well at the Secretary level. These things get upgraded to Ministerial level is generally when the time is right and when the opportunity presents itself. I can’t give a timetable or whether it will even happen.

If the India-Australia ties are strong at the strategic and people to people level, how is the relationship playing out at the higher political levels?

There are a lot of things on which Australia has been very supportive of India in multilateral formats. We were the founding member of India Solar Alliance (ISA) right from the start. At the launching of ISA in March 2018 we had sent our Head of State as our representative.

We are also the founding member of coalition for disaster resilient infrastructure which was launched last year by India.

We see both these things as very positive, proactive actions by India. India is stepping up to the place it should hold on the world stage.

We have been a vocal supporter of India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and there are UN members that are have been as upfront as we have. That continues to be our position. We think it’s a good thing India joined export control regimes. So we actively supported India’s entry into the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Australia group. We continue to support India getting into NSG.

 There is a similarly long-standing Australian policy to support reform and expansion of UNSC to include the G-4 which includes India (and Germany, Japan and Brazil). That has always been our policy.

As time has gone on the case for India to take on these roles has only gone stronger.

One reason for India staying away from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was the lack of FTAs with China, Australia and New Zealand. From Australia and New Zealand, it was feared dairy imports would hit the domestic dairy sector. Is there a move to open FTA talks with India?

India’s decision on RCEP has been disappointing. Our very first response from that announcement was to say to India that the door is wide open. When India is ready to join RCEP Australia will support that.

We hope India will join RCEP sooner than later because India’s ability to shape RCEP, to take it forward will be stronger the sooner it joins rather than later.

There were many reasons that went into India’s decision. I believe there was not anything that could not have been negotiated or surmounted. We saw a lot of progress in the last phases of RCEP negotiation and are very confident we can continue to negotiate in that framework. At this stage would like to see what we can do to progress our discussions with India on RCEP and of course a lot of talk about what we might do bilaterally.

It has been seven years since Australian PM Julia Gillard (newly retired from politics) overturned the Labour Party’s disinclination to sell uranium to India. It was seen as a major symbolic gesture. Can you provide an update on the India-Australia civil nuclear relationship?

We made a lot of progress. After Gillard’s announcement, we concluded a bilateral civil nuclear agreement a year after that. By the end of 2015, we had also completed the interim arrangements. We had seen some exploratory moves to test Australian uranium and lay the groundwork for commercial sales.

We are still to operationalise the implementing arrangements. It is still underway. We are heading in the right direction.

India has been the top source country for migration into Australia; in the past five years, some two lakh Indians have migrated to Australia. What are the prospects for Indian migration in the future?

There has always been in Australia a correlation between immigration and economic performance. If you look at it from a broad sweep of history….(picks up a book ‘Australia’s second chance’ by George Megalogenis), this guy is an economist. He wrote a whole book on immigration and Australia’s economy. That book concludes that the Australian economy has always done better with stronger immigration levels. That continues to hold true. We have had a formal immigration policy and we have brought in people to live and settle in Australia for many, many decades. It has served us very well.

For the last few years, India has been the source of the largest skilled migration to India. They are making a very strong contribution to society and our economy. They are hard-working, honest, tax-paying citizens of Australia. So we continue to welcome Indian migrants. They tend to do very well in qualifying for migration.

We have a fairly have a transparent, non-discriminatory immigration policy. If people qualify they are able to migrate. Yes, it is challenging to qualify but Indians are doing very, very well. I see no reason why that should change in the short term.

Australia had once sold fighter jets to Pakistan. How are the Canberra-Islamabad defence ties now?

I am not an expert, to be honest, because I am not the High Commissioner to Islamabad. I think I can only say as a general point that we have had relations with Pakistan including defence relations.

It is fair to say our relationship with India is much deeper and stronger but I don’t think I can be more specific about what those specifics of our relationship with Pakistan are.



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