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NEW DELHI: India and Australia are strengthening their trade negotiation teams aiming to hammer out an “early harvest" agreement at least by the end of this year, said former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who was in India last week as special envoy on trade.

In an opinion piece in “The Australian" newspaper on Monday, Abbott noted that when he was the Australian prime minister, he had described India as “emerging democratic superpower" and added that a trade deal with India could be seen as making “the world safer for democracy."

“With the world’s other emerging superpower becoming more belligerent almost by the day, it’s in everyone’s interests that India take its rightful place among the nations as quickly as possible," Abbott said referring to China.

“And because trade deals are about politics as much as economics, a swift deal between India and Australia would be an important sign of the democratic world’s tilt away from China, as well as boosting the long-term prosperity of both our countries," he wrote.

The former Australian prime minister, who was named Prime Minister Scott Morison’s special trade envoy for India to deepen trade and investment links that will help drive post-covid recovery last week, was in India for talks between 2-6 August. In New Delhi, he met a cross-section of leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Australia has been looking for new trade allies in a bid to reduce its economic dependence on China, following a serious spat last year after Canberra supported Washington’s call for a probe into the origins of the covid-19 pandemic. The move riled China whose ties with Australia were already frayed after Canberra barred Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from pitching gear and technology for Australian 5G networks in 2018. China retaliated with bans on Australian beef and wine and high tariffs on barley.

In his piece in “The Australian," Abbott referred to Chinese tendencies to use trade as “a strategic weapon."

“The (covid-19) pandemic has put up in flashing neon lights the extent to which the world has become dependent on Chinese imports, including in critical supply chains, that can be turned on and off like a tap," Abbott noted.

“But the answer to almost every question about China is India. Although currently not as rich as China, as a democracy under the rule of law, and as the world’s second-largest producer of steel and pharmaceuticals, and with its own version of Silicon Valley, India is perfectly placed to substitute for China in global supply chains," he said.

Describing Australia and India as “natural partners," Abbott said, “Our (Australian) challenge is to overcome India’s traditional protectionism, and the tendency to see trade talks as a zero-sum game, in order to seal a deal that will make the world safer for democracy."

Both countries were “boosting their negotiating teams with a view to having an ‘early harvest’ trade agreement at least by the end of the year, as a big step towards a much deeper partnership," Abbott said.

“Australia could readily replace China as a key source of the rare earths and other strategic minerals that India will need, under PM (Narendra) Modi’s ‘Make in India’ program, if it’s to replace China as a source of manufactured inputs at scale," he wrote.

“With a spectacular infrastructure program now under way, as well as sweeping privatisation, India should be a place for Australian investment funds to secure long-term stable returns," Abbott said.

“With the pandemic accelerating changes to the world order, there’s a wider resonance to Australia’s efforts to give India a leadership role among the great democracies. If Australian business and officialdom were to make the same effort with India that they’ve long made with China, there’s potential for a ‘family’ relationship with India that was never likely with China, especially under the party-state," Abbott concluded.

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