By Alexandra Hansen
Julie Bishop, Australia’s incumbent Foreign Minister has visited India, telling an audience in Mumbai of the value Australia places on its relationship with India.
In what was Ms Bishop’s first visit to India as Foreign Minister, she named India as “an essential part of [Australia’s] foreign policy priorities,” whose relationship needs “constant attention and nurturing.”
Calling India an “economic, political, and strategic powerhouse and a mega democracy with increasing global influence,” Bishop said Australia has been slow to realise India’s importance and power in the region.
“[India] has the potential to be one of our most valuable and strategic partners yet Australia has seemed slow to fully come to terms with India’s regional and global significance and why a deeper and stronger and more diversified relationship is in Australia’s interest.”
For decades Australian foreign policy has focused on relationships with east-Asian giants China, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea, Bishop said, as well as a heavy focus on the US.
She assured the audience however; the new government led by Tony Abbott understands the importance of a close friendship with India.
Prime Minister Abbott and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh met earlier this month in Brunei, but no Indian Prime Minister has visited Australia since 1986, despite numerous visits of Australian PMs to the subcontinent.
Bishop said “we certainly hope your Prime Minister will be able to visit Australia…it’s been some time since we have had the honour and privilege of hosting an Indian Prime Minister and we are very keen to do so.”
Issues of importance to both regions, according to Bishop, are ensuring continued US engagement in the region, ensuring China makes a positive contribution to regional peace and stability, working together in strategic policy, operational planning, and counter-terrorism, and deterring the spread of weapons of mass destruction and narcotics.
On trade, Bishop pointed to the sharp rise in bilateral trade between Australia and India, which has increased by a third in the last five years. India is now Australia’s fifth-largest export market.
On energy and resources, Bishop proposed Australia and India had the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship, whereby India needs Australia’s resources for energy security, and Australia needs India’s purchasing power to create jobs and prosperity for Australians in the resource sector.
Bishop also highlighted regret that the former Australian government overturned (for a time) the Howard government’s decision to allow the sale of uranium to India. She said this caused “four years of unnecessary tension in the relationship.”
Australia’s New Colombo Plan was announced - to send Australian students to universities in the subcontinent - to build Australia’s India-literacy and build people-to-people linkages.
While in India, Bishop formally opened an Australian Consulate General in Mumbai, the city she said “appears to be always open for business.” She gave her congratulations to India’s hero, and recipient of the prestigious Order of Australia, Sachin Tendulkar, on his retirement from test cricket.