Chennai, Sept.9 : Describing bilateral ties between Australia and India as being on a "firm foundation", especially in the economic and social sectors, visiting Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on Tuesday said that he is optimistic about the future of these "shared values and interests" and believed that both countries could "build on these great strengths."
Addressing a seminar here titled "Australia and India: The Strategic Outlook", which was organised by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Smith said both New Delhi and Canberra are ready to enter a new era of cooperation on joint challenges and opportunities both in the region and globally.
"Here in Chennai, my first port of call, I feel that sense of similar sense of optimism about our futures. I look forward to sharing that with the leaders, officials and decision-makers I meet in the days ahead," Smith said.
He said that his visit to Chennai is significant, as the city is one of the "great drivers of the tremendous economic growth India has experienced in recent years."
"In many ways it is Australia's gateway to India and a vital link in the strong economic relationship our countries are building. Through that relationship, Australia is inextricably interwoven into India's future growth," he added.
But he said that commercial ties are only one part of a relationship and that Australia is keen to further develop and broaden the relationship from a strategic perspective.
"As India's economic weight has grown, so has its strategic view broadened. This means that our strategic interests, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, increasingly intersect. As India looks to the east, Australia also looks west. Today, on the occasion of my first visit to India as Foreign Minister, I want to highlight those areas of shared strategic interest," Smith said.
He said that during his four-day visit to India, he would seek to take the bilateral relationship "to the front rank of our international partnerships."
India and Australia , he said , currently enjoyed strong sporting, cultural and business ties.
However, he said, that more needed to be done and achieved on the economic front. Citing figures, Smith said that last year's bilateral merchandise trade relationship was just short of 11 billion Australian dollars.
Almost half of that bilateral merchandise trade in 2007 was with Western Australia, making India my State's 4th largest export destination. Gold, alumina, iron ore and other resource products dominate these exports.
He said Australian investment in India has continued to grow, passing the four billion Australian dollar mark in 2007.
"There are tremendous opportunities for further commercial interaction and Australian businesses have been quick to recognise this potential, particularly here in South India," Smith said, adding that Australia's Minister for Trade, Simon Crean and his counterpart, Kamal Nath, have agreed that their respective governments will be working to complete the joint FTA feasibility study by the end of this year.
"Our growing trade and investment links are being matched by expanding people-to-people links. Much of this is being driven by the ever increasing numbers of Indian students attracted to Australia's high quality education services," he said.
"There have been over 70,000 enrolments of Indian students in Australian education institutions already this year. Enrolments from India have grown at an average annual rate of 41 per cent since 2002. This is underpinned by strengthening links between Australian and Indian educational institutions and by the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, which is Australia's largest bilateral scientific research fund," he added.
"Our two countries can do much more to harness our combined scientific creativity. It is scientific breakthroughs which power so many commercial success stories. Australia's 2006 census showed that the Indian community was the ninth largest ethnic group in Australia, at over 230,000. This number will grow now that India has become Australia's largest source of skilled migrants," he said.
As far as the international arena is concerned, Smith said: "We share profound values and viewpoints which will guide us as we pursue common interests and confront common challenges. India is the largest democracy in the world. As India assumes the mantle of global influence accorded to it by its economic size and strength, its strategic weight in the world is naturally increasing. Australia welcomes this because we see in India a country that combines a remarkable pace of domestic development with an active and constructive role on the regional and world stage."
"This century will be marked by an inexorable shift in global economic and strategic influence to the Asia Pacific. This historic transformation demands our constant and ongoing attention. Australia is fortunate that our economic prosperity is tied to Asia's rise and we have tremendous optimism about India's future. We look forward to deepening our engagement with India in South Asia," he concluded.