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© Neena Bhandari, The Pioneer

Australia, South Africa and India should form a “triangle of tranquillity” through increased strategic and economic cooperation to counter China’s advances in the Indian Ocean region, said Chandan Mitra, Editor of The Pioneer and Member of Parliament while delivering the keynote address at the `Australia-India 2020 International Forum’ at University of Sydney.

Mitra said, “India’s strategic ethos should ensure important friends like Australia and South Africa are part of this process for greater development of the Indian Ocean region. The region has become ripe for geo-strategic competition due to the presence of mutually distrustful littorals, which has prevented the creation of appropriate security architecture despite similar priorities and a common interest in maritime operations.”

Emphasising India’s concern over China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy — the establishment of ports and naval bases in close proximity to shipping lanes and oil supply routes across the Indian Ocean — Mitra said this strategy had significantly expanded China’s strategic depth in India’s backyard.

This includes the Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma, electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, funding the construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, a military agreement with Cambodia and building up of forces in the South China Sea.

ImageDespite the fact the Indian Ocean region is also of vital strategic importance for Australia, the latter has substantially under-appreciated it.

“As American strategic and economic power relatively diminishes in the region because of China’s and India’s growth, Australia would have to adjust its policies to these changes,” said John McCarthy, chairman of the Australia-India Council.

In recent years, Australia-India bilateral relations have come under strain due to attacks on Indian students in Australia. Prof John Hearn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International) said, “Sydney University is looking to increase the flow of staff and students between the two countries and to improve Australia’s reputation as a destination for Indian students.”

The University, which enrolls a large number of overseas Indians students, has had a long history of collaborative research with premier Indian institutes. It is further strengthening research partnerships across a wide spectrum of disciplines from health and agriculture to IT and engineering.

Another irksome issue has been Australia’s refusal to export uranium to India for its civilian nuclear programme. The Labour Party policy demands that uranium be sold only to countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“It doesn’t make sense not to sell uranium to India, especially after the US –India nuclear deal. We must get past it sooner than later,” said Mr McCarthy, who has served as Australia’s High Commissioner to India.

Following the 2008 India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, India plans to significantly upgrade its nuclear power programme and locate at least 40 more N-reactors over the next 10 years that will generate power to meet 20 per cent of India’s energy needs by 2050.

Australia has 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves. It is India’s sixth largest trading partner and India is Australia’s fifth largest. India’s ranking among Australia’s export destinations has risen from 12th to fourth between 2003-04 and 2009-10.

From A$ 6.54 billion in 2003-04, trade in goods and services between India and Australia reached A$ 22.40 billion in 2009-10.

“We can’t afford not to be in India”, said Mark Pierce, Assistant Secretary, South & Central Asia Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“While the economic aspect is phenomenally important in this bilateral relationship, the focus should also be on building close people-to-people linkages and winning hearts and minds,”  said Neville Roach, Member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council of Overseas Indians.

He called for Hindi and other regional Indian languages to be included in the Australian school curriculum, emphasising the importance of language in understanding a country.

The forum, which attracted academicians, students, diplomats, business and government executives, and members from the growing Indian diaspora, also included a series of round table meetings on areas of joint interest: Food security, capacity-building in business, public health partnerships and science education.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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