Harinder Sidhu, Australia’s High Commissioner to India since 2016, brings over three decades of experience across a wide spectrum of foreign policy issues, having held top posts dealing with Australia’s Multilateral Policy, Climate Change, Defence and national security before coming to New Delhi. She has also served in Australian missions in Damascus, Moscow and Cairo, and is fluent in Arabic. In a wide-ranging interview with Ramananda Sengupta, she explains how the India Australia relationship has evolved and developed over the years, and why it is now poised for takeoff.
Do your Indian roots give you any advantage as the Australian High Commissioner to India?
My family left India many generations ago, but we’ve always preserved our culture, our identity. For me it was very exciting to be back. I have no family here that I know of, but it’s really been very rewarding for me to discover those parts of me that are Indian. It really helps in connecting with Indian people and particularly with the government. And the best part about is that I’ve been very warmly received here by the system, by the people I meet, they see it as a positive, and I think that’s a definite positive.
Last year you released a report titled An India Economic Strategy to 2035, by Peter Varghese, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and your predecessor as Australian High Commissioner to India. What is that report all about?
Generally, when governments talk about improving the relationship between two countries, they start and sometimes end with a conversation about a free trade agreement. That’s where we found ourselves. But we really want to build a relationship with India, an economic relationship, that goes much beyond a FTA. This report was commissioned to explore what a three-dimensional economical relationship between India and Australia look like 20 years from now, and what’s the path to get there. In a nutshell, what Mr Varghese said is that it is entirely possible in the next 20 years to raise India to be the among the top three export markets for Australia, for India to become one of largest destination for investments from Australia, and that we can have people-to-people ties as close as any in Asia. To do this--it’s kind of a guidebook for Australian business—he says don’t think of India as a single country. Understand its complexity and diversity, think of it as a collection of states, and as a collection of sectors. If you approach India that way, it’s much easier to understand where you need to focus your effort, or how you might approach the Indian economy. There are 10 states which have the highest complementarities with Australia, and we have 10 priority sectors. The leading sector is education, the other top sectors are resources, agribusiness and tourism. It’s interesting that two of those are people-to-people connect sectors. Which is why that is going to be a such a defining part of the relationship.
At the Raisina Dialogue earlier this year, your foreign minister Marise Payne launched something called the South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity Initiative, or SARIC. What does that involve?
We understand that there is a connection between strategic strength and economic resilience. We’ve been working with partners largely in the Pacific, but also in Southeast Asia, to build economic resilience. SARIC is a $25 million dollar initiative in stage, and its meant to work with partners in South Asia to build connectivity, specifically in the transport and energy sector. We know that if South Asia is better connected, if there are these arrangements are put in place for a robust infrastructure, that gives a very solid base for economic development. We are now moving quickly in the design process.
The other thing that came up repeatedly during this Raisina Dialogue was the Quadrilateral initiative, or the Quad, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India. How would you define that?
We live in a world where strategic and economic issues don’t sit in different baskets. There is a lot of interplay. The Quad is a product of the rise of what we call “mini-lateral” engagement. For so long, when countries have looked to cooperate.. …we’ve been doing it regionally, we have APEC, we have the East Asia Summit, and they’ve worked well. Or even in smaller pluri-lateral groups like the G20. So you have big UN and the WTO on the one hand and you have all these groupings of countries. What we are seeing now is the rise of tri-lateral, quadri-lateral small group engagement. The BRICS is one example. The Quad is in a sense another version of those, though of course it is not as well developed.It really is a coming together of countries that have shared interests, just as any other small group does. So you four countries, Indo-Pacific powers, that have an interest in maintaining the prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific. There have been three meetings of the Quad, and how it will develop will be an outcome of these meetings. So far the conversation has traversed a number of ways of working together…from counterterrorism, or cyber engagement, through to maritime domain awareness, environmental initiatives, and even economic initiatives. it takes time to build these relationships and understanding, but we are definitely moving forward with these regular meetings.
Recently, Andrew Penn the boss of Telstra, Australia’s largest telecom company, called for end to 'unhealthy' and 'potentially dangerous' immigration debate, not just in Australia, but US, UK etc, saying there’s a lot negative commentary on the subject…
It’s important to understand that Australia has had an immigration program for a very long time. Pretty much since the end of WW II, we have had an organised immigration program. We continue to bring people to settle in Australia, and we have been very successful in do that…so much so that today about half of all Australian are either first generation or second generation arrivals. It’s inevitable when you build your society or your economy like this that there will be debate about it. Sometimes that debate is not as constructive as we’d like. Like India, we are a free and open society and people will express their views. That does not take away from the fact that there has been a deep commitment to maintaining our immigration program from all sides of government, politics, and from the business sector. People at the fringe of this debate invariably get a lot more media attention. In survey after survey, about 80 per cent of Australians say it has been good for the country. There is vast social support for it.
President Ram Nath Kovind was the first Indian President to visit Australia last year. What took it so long?
I can’t speak for the Indian government. There was no constraint from our side. We would always warmly welcome the President or Prime Minister from any country, particularly India. So all I can say is how delighted we were to receive him. It was a very successful visit, he met everyone, from the governor general, to the prime minister, the governor of New South Wales..he was very warmly welcomed and celebrated. What was great about that visit was his ability to connect with the Indian diaspora, and I think he himself was pleasantly surprised at how warmly he was welcomed by all Australians, no matter what their background.
During that visit, Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Dr Ajay Gondane, remarked that “with the expansion of the Indian economy, we hope that Australians will now catch on and be a willing partner."
I would say this: One of the problems we have is that though the economic relationship is growing very fast, but given the size of the Indian market, it’s not where it could be. Last year, India account for 3.6 per cent of Australia’s total global exports. That’s the same amount that we export to New Zealand. There’s no lack of good will on the Australian business side, but often, they don’t know where to start, they are daunted by the size and the complexity of the Indian market. The Varghese report was intended to unlock that, and make it more accessible.
Dr Gondane also said the Adani Carmichael mineproject - which environmental activists oppose saying it would impact climate change etc -- would be a test case. Given your experience in that area, how do you see the issue?
The Australian government has been unwavering in its support for the Adani investment. We welcome all investments, wherever it comes from. So from the Federal government’s perspective, Adani has received all its approvals and can really make a start if it chooses to. There is no impediment there. But we are a free country, and there will be those oppose development, and they free to express those views, and that is what is happening right now.
What about environmental issues?
My experience in climate change has taught me a few things, and one of them is that a careful balance has to be struck in a way that is efficient but also in a way that balances emissions. I think India is talking a very balanced approach. It is not entirely a coal based development. But at the state of technology we are in, there is a requirement to have coal as a base resource. Coal from Australia mines is much lower in ash and chemicals, and has a much higher calorific value, which means it burns more efficiently, which means you burn less for the same amount of electricity. The Indian government is doing fantastic things in terms of renewables and promoting alternative sources of energy, which is a very sensible way to go. I have no doubt that India will achieve its climate change goals, coal will play a part, for at least short to medium to just drive development along, but we are certain that technology will resolve the issue over time.
India and the Queensland government signed an MoU on mine safety...
Australia is a large mining country. We are extraordinarily successful. We are the world’s second largest coal exporter, second largest and soon to be largest exporter of rare earth minerals like Lithium, Iron ore we export enormous amounts, the volume of mining we do has meant that the sophistication and technological capability we have is major, and that is something we are prepared to share. We have a Australian India mining partnership through the Indian school of mines in Dhanbad, and one element of that is bringing together mines safety experts from Queensland..and the MoU you refer to is a technology sharing of virtual reality mine safety training equipment. India has many challenges, and I don’t for a moment say we have all the answers, but to the extent that we can contribute towards a more robust mining sector..for instance, we can get 40 per cent more coal out of a mine in Australia than India can, it’s just mining techniques, so we are sharing the technology which will lead to a better outcome for India.
Australia and Brazil have been threatening take India to the WTO over sugar subsidies..why?
That has to do with dramatic oversupply of sugar in the Indian system at the moment. Australia, Brazil, Thailand, and a number of other countries are very large sugar exporters. The international sugar market sits at about 35 million tonnes which gets traded around the world. Because of some of India’s policies, which are well intentioned, have led to overplanting and oversupply of sugar in India. So much so that India is sitting on a very very large stockpile of sugar. Whether or not that sugar gets exported, it sends a signal to the global market, saying there’s this huge amount which potentially be in the global market, and this has led to a collapse in world sugar prices. The WTO allows domestic subsidies upto a limit, and what we are saying is that India has gone beyond that subsidy support to its farmers and that is causing this bad effect.
India has some unresolved issues with China. I believe Australia too recently had an issue over Chinese involvement in its internal affairs...
We have balanced relationships, where we maximise the positives and minimise the negatives, and that is true of every relationship we have. But if we see something we don’t really like we will call it out and be clear about it. In this case we apparently had some politicians in Australia who by virtue of their connections, had the risk of being influenced by China..whether it is China or not, it is a foreign power. That was the concern. We passed legislation in late 2107 on criminalising and restricting foreign interference in our political process. This is an issue that is happening in many other countries. We have tried to make politicians’ behaviour more transparent, and to not allow certain forms of behaviour. So they have to declare their connections with foreign powers, to campaign donations, those sorts of things, so that it becomes very transparent. Those connections are constrained and restricted while they are in parliament.
You came to India in 2016. How different was it from what you were expecting?
I think what I was not prepared for was just how fast India has moved in the past few years in terms of visible development that you can see, how sophisticated the economy has become in a few years, at a rapid pace, how forward learning a lot governmental reforms are. The other thing surprised and continues to delight me is how impressive India’s youth are. Young people in India are completely different in their outlook, in their confidence and aspirations compared to their parents and their grandparents. And I think in Australia we tend to look at India through the lens of older Indians who we’ve become familiar with, but there is a very real dynamism and energy that has come through young people in India, and that makes me very happily optimistic about India’s prospects going forward.
Someone once described Indo-Israeli ties as an affair, not a relationship. How would you describe India Australia relations in that context..an affair, a relationship, or just flirting and getting to know each other?
I think at every level, every dimension of the relationship that I can think of, we are moving upwards and in a positive direction. The net result of all that is we have Indian students going to Australia every year. We have more Australian tourists in India, we even have Australian students coming to India to study..we have 1200 coming this year. We have trade ticking up, our defence relationship is growing very very fast, our next naval exercise is happening in April. And hence, we are also starting to understand each other in a contemporary way, as who we are, and not who we think the other is. That is the basis for a very solid, close and trusting friendship.