Turnbull in India: five points for the Australia-India agenda

We need a coordinated effort for success in India

Photo courtesy of @narendramodi on Twitter

Prime Minister Turnbull is in the midst of his first official tour to India, with the ambitious agenda to boost trade, energy, security and education cooperation. The Prime Minister will spend a considerable amount of time in bilateral talks and solidify his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meet with business leaders and talk at an Asia Society India co-convened business event.

In preparation for this historic visit Asia Society recently held a Policy Briefing to take stock and offer some focus points for re-calibrating the Australia-India relationship.

Hosted at KPMG in Sydney and chaired by Asia Society Australia Chairman Doug Ferguson, the session was led by Dr A.M. Gondane, High Commissioner of India and included Australian business, not-for-profit, education and government leaders.

Consensus: As India looks to become the world’s third-largest economy over the next 15 years, Australia needs to refocus its efforts in engaging in this quickly crowding market. The compatibility of our advantages with India’s needs will get us so far, but to fully realise the potential of India's growing economy and social transformations, and with a free trade deal on the backburner, we will need a coordinated push across business, education, government and the not-for-profit sector.

Concerns: India has a high-risk profile, and a highly complex business, regulatory bureaucratic environment. It is not helped by the scarcity of business success stories in the Australian and Indian media and the absence of compelling 'narrative' of the partnership that encompasses our existing significant government, business and social links, and highlights the potential for growth.

Five Takeaways:

Move beyond the cricket
A reoccurring point was the need to reframe the Australia-India relationship in the minds of the public and media beyond the boundaries of the cricket pitch and towards the potential for significant economic, security and people-to-people linkages. Sports diplomacy, while a key element of our bilateral relationship is taking up too much oxygen in the Australia-India discourse, impeding the visibility of ties in other important areas, such as business, education and the not-for-profit sector.

Highlighting the success stories, especially in business and entrepreneurship will be key to changing the mindset and encouraging our respective business communities to connect.

Focus on Education
Australia should position its highly internationalised education and training sector to help plug the skills gap existing in India’s labour market, while being mindful of the capacity of Australian labour market to deliver value to many Indian students seeking opportunities to stay and work here.

Australian vocational training and tertiary education providers are at the forefront of Turnbull’s visit, as he is joined by Education Minister Simon Birmingham and several university Vice Chancellors and education leaders. Industry leaders at our Policy Briefing urged for a consolidated effort from public and private providers in positioning Australian institutions as the high-quality, competitive and committed partners in India's continuing quest to educate its new generations. More on why now is the time for higher education collaboration>>

Trilateral investment
With the appetite for risk relatively low among Australian institutional investors and the time for Australian service, infrastructure and educational providers to move on the India market well upon us, Australian companies should look at alternative pathways to capital. Trilateral investment partnerships with Japan, Singapore, United States and China, could potentially marry investors with a higher-risk profile and Australian expertise to deliver long-term benefits and value.

Translate the success of Australian not-for-profits to business
One aspect of the Australia-India relationship that sees ample activity is the not-for-profit and social entrepreneurship sector. Despite being relatively underexposed in the media, many Australian-backed not-for-profit organisations are success stories, and there is an immense potential for further cooperation in this area, as India continues its battles with poverty, environmental degradation and lack of access to education and healthcare.

Many of these organisations operate with local partners, within highly bureaucratic environments, in remote areas, manage complex logistical operations, deliver training and upskilling staff and have extremely limited resources. The lessons learnt here can have valuable application to the commercial sector and Australian companies should take note.

Capitalise on the demographic dividend
What sets India apart from Australia’s other major partners in the region is its demographic advantage, in comparison to countries such as Japan or China. With 51% of people under 25, the entrepreneurial potential of this young population is remarkable, and the opportunity lies for Australia in helping to upskill this young workforce.

Asia Society Australia's Policy Briefings connect our members with senior diplomats, foreign policy and country experts to dissect foreign and economic policy issues and relationships which are critically important for Australia. We thank our long-standing partner and member KPMG for hosting the event and High Commissioner Gondane for sharing his insights.