As simmering tensions continue in the Sino-Australian bilateral relationship, India looms as an increasingly attractive export and investment destination for Australian businesses looking to grow their operations in this Asian century.
This year, India cemented its position as the fastest growing major economy in the world, surpassing China. Since 2015, it has achieved a GDP growth rate of over 7 per cent per year. Its 2018–19 second quarter GDP growth rate was a 15-quarter high of 8.2 per cent (China: 6.7 per cent), raising hopes of 8 per cent annual GDP growth this fiscal year.
With common democratic and judicial systems, and a shared history of Commonwealth, colonisation and cricket, Australia and India are natural allies. But the tremendous potential for bilateral business growth has thus far been hobbled by a lack of political will on both sides of the Indian Ocean.
With the recent release of the ‘India Economic Strategy to 2035: Navigating from potential to delivery’ by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in July, the spotlight is on Australia-India bilateral trade, security and strategic relations.
The strategy was authored by former Australian high commissioner to India, former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, and University of Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese.
Mr Varghese identified 10 sectors and 10 key Indian states that Australia should focus on in the next two decades. The sectors are education, agriculture, energy, resources, tourism, healthcare, financial services, infrastructure, science and innovation, and sport.
According to the report, by 2035, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country and is poised to become the third largest economy, after China and the United States. It says that over the next 20 years, no single market will offer more growth opportunities for Australia than India.
“The targets set out in this report would see Australian exports to India grow from $14.9 billion in 2017 to around $45 billion measured in today’s dollars, and outward Australian investment to India rise from $10.3 billion to over the $100 billion mark, reflecting a transformational expansion of the relationship.
“That is the size of the opportunity and the key lesson for Australia of India’s scale, the momentum which is already built into its growth trajectory and the underlying complementarity between our two economies,” the report says.
“The opportunities however will not fall into our lap. They require a sharper national focus on India by government, an unambiguous commitment by Australian business and a deeper understanding by both government and business of the magnitude of what is unfolding in an Indian market place which will only get more crowded. They will also require an approach to the investment relationship with India that markedly differs from the trajectory of Australian investment in most other Asian markets.
“The transformation of the Indian economy is underway. Its progress will be uneven but the direction is clear and irreversible. To realise the opportunities this opens up, we need as a country to make a strategic investment in India which is backed up with an ambitious, long term and multidimensional Australian strategy driven at the highest levels of the Australian Government,” the report says.
After the departure of Mr Turnbull, who commissioned the report, it remains to be seen whether new Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Government will accord the bilateral trade relationship with India the same importance that Mr Turnbull did. If it does, Australia stands to benefit tremendously, if it fails to do so, Australian companies risk missing out on the tremendous opportunities.
All of this was the focus of this year’s Australia India Address 2018 delivered by Anthony Albanese, shadow minister for Infrastructure, Regional Development, Cities, Transport and Tourism. Mr Albanese gave the annual address organised by the Australia India Business Council ACT chapter at the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra this month.
Highlighting the huge potential, Mr Albanese said: “Everyone talks about China, but our relationship with India is very important. It’s a democratic nation … it’s one with which we have close ties and has a large diaspora here. Thousands of Indian students come here to study … so I encourage the Australian business community to undertake more activities in India.”
He reminisced fondly about his first trip to India in 1991 as a backpacker with now wife Carmel Tebbutt, when they boarded buses, trains and auto-rickshaws and travelled around the country. And he contrasted that experience with the major transformation under way in India now, witnessing the changes during an official visit to India last year.
On the Indian side, the government is eyeing the trillion dollar Australian superannuation fund industry to invest in India’s booming infrastructure sector.
Indian pharmaceuticals and healthcare product manufacturers are hoping to gain entry into the Australian market to supply medicines and other high-quality healthcare products at competitive prices. India also wants to tap into Australia’s world-class sports facilities and coaching expertise to nurture its athletes and sportspeople, for whom Olympic success has proved embarrassingly elusive.
The address provided a one-of-a-kind opportunity for businesses, policy makers, venture capitalists, private equity investors, angel funds, micro, small and medium enterprises, chambers of commerce, and entrepreneurs to come together and network for investment opportunities.
Sanjay Bhosale is the president of the Australia India Business Council ACT chapter. He is also a director on the AIBC national board of directors and a former journalist at The Canberra Times.