Why India and why now?

Australian business has long put India in the 'too hard' basket. There are three overriding reasons why this must change: scale, complementary economies and spreading risk.

For Australian companies with a global focus the key question is whether they can afford not to be in what is the fastest growing large economy in the world.

India's scale is extraordinary. By 2025, one-fifth of the world's working age population will be Indian. By 2030 there will be over 850 million internet users in India. By 2035 India's five largest cities will have economies of comparable size to middle income countries today.

There is no market over the next 20 years which offers more growth opportunities for Australian business 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 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.

This report has a simple message. 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.

Australia should set itself the goal by 2035 to lift India into its top three export markets, to make it the third largest destination in Asia for Australian outward investment, and to bring it into the inner circle of Australia's strategic partnerships and with people to people ties as close as any in Asia.

The long view: patience, perspective and preparation

What follows is a deliberately long term perspective about Australia and India: out to 2035.

A strategy with this time horizon has to try and capture not just how India will change over the next 20 years but also shifts in the Australian economy. We are today poised globally at the edge of a revolution in technology. Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning and other innovations will likely change the nature of work and the productivity of both the Australian and Indian economies. So looking out to 2035 means plotting the points of intersection of two moving parts.

A long view is important for any strategy. For India it is essential. India is a market which requires patience, perspective and preparation. Change in India is often invisible to the naked eye. That is one reason why perceptions of India in the Australian business community are caught in a time warp: largely unaware of the significant positive changes taking place in India and shaped by a 'once bitten twice shy' perspective.

The opening up of the Indian economy is a good example. Australian business still tends to think of the Indian economy as relatively closed. Yet the Indian economy of today is very different to the days of the license raj. And the Indian economy of 2035 will be different again.

India's average applied tariff is today one-tenth what it was in 1990. In 1990, total trade as a proportion of Indian gross domestic product (GDP) was around 13 per cent. Today it is 40 per cent. India's two way foreign direct investment (FDI) to GDP ratio at just under 20 per cent is still low by global averages. But the stock of inward FDI has grown by 19 per cent a year over each of the last 20 years.

None of this is to suggest that doing business in and with India will not have its challenges. India is too complicated for its growth story to be linear. Its economic progress will be uneven and incremental, constrained by the political compromises demanded by a diverse democratic federation, held back by thinly resourced institutions, burdened by a bureaucracy too susceptible to arbitrary interference, dented by endemic corruption and shaped by a political tradition which puts much greater faith in government intervention than the efficiency of markets.

There is no point lamenting these constraints. They are wired into the Indian experience. We need to understand them but also acknowledge that they are changing and look beyond them to grasp the significance of the opportunities created by a growing Indian economy.

India marches to its own tune – It is not the next China

India needs to be understood on its own terms. It will always march to its own tune. It is the only country with the scale to match China but it will not be the next China. Indeed comparisons with China only get in the way of understanding the nature of the opportunities in the Indian market.

No Indian Government will be able to direct the economy in the way China does. Nor will it ever have the control over the allocation of resources which has been intrinsic to China's economic success. China has a discipline to its economic planning which flows from its one party political system and the competence of its state institutions. Also for all its diversity, China has a strong Han Chinese core which has no counterpart in the linguistic and cultural diversity of India.

India's economy will be big but not as big as China's (which is currently five times its size). China's economy would have to crash and India's grow at over 10 per cent a year for several decades for India to catch up. Neither is likely.

Nor will India's economic model mirror that of East Asia's. Its growth will be driven by consumption and services, not exports. It has demographics on its side, a long entrepreneurial tradition, an expanding consumer class, significant headroom for productivity improvements and the confidence that comes from a strong sense of its civilisational pedigree and destiny.

The drivers of Indian growth are deeply structural which suggests they are also sustainable. They include the urbanisation of the world's largest rural population, the gradual movement of the informal economy, currently comprising 90 per cent of India's workers, into the formal economy, a young demographic with a mean age of 27, considerable investment in infrastructure, and the beginnings of an ambitious program to upskill 400 million Indians.

These structural drivers will likely keep India on a relatively strong growth path. I have deliberately taken a moderate view of the rate of growth out to 2035, assuming that it will be in the order of 6–8 per cent each year over the next 20 years. This assumes incremental rather than radical structural reforms. But for what is already the world's fastest growing large economy to grow by 6–8 per cent each year for the next two decades will still be transformative for India itself, its region and its economic partners.

Most of all India has scale. It will by 2035 overtake China as the world's most populous country. This means a deep domestic market which will likely make India the world's third largest economy by 2035 after China and the United States measured by market exchange rates. It is already the third largest economy measured by purchasing power parity.

Scale encourages ambition but it is the structural complementarity between the Indian and Australian economies which is the key to translating ambition into opportunities. Put simply, a growing Indian economy will need more of the things Australia is well placed to provide from education services to resources and energy; from food to health care; from tourist destinations to expertise in water and environmental management. Indeed services are likely to be the fastest growing segment of our future economic relationship with India.

Beyond scale and complementary economies there is a third important reason to bring India into the first tier of our economic relationships: spreading risk.

Exports and attracting foreign investment are key elements in the strength of the Australian economy and our ability to maintain a rising standard of living. In a global economy, it pays to hedge against volatility by diversifying. If we can count India in our top three export destinations and if we can tap more two way investment between our countries, Australia's exposure to global risk is reduced. A strong economic relationship with India strengthens Australia's economic resilience. That is important for a country where 40 per cent of our exports currently go to just two markets with ageing populations. India – a large and young population – adds balance and spreads risk in Australia's economic relationships. A partnership with India in science and innovation can also help drive domestic productivity and create Australian jobs in sectors we are yet to imagine.

A three pillar strategy: economics, geopolitics and people

The focus of this report is on building a sustainable long term India economic strategy. But an economic strategy works best within a much broader and deeper relationship with India.

Our economic strategy should be seen as one of three pillars on which the bilateral relationship should rest, the other two being geopolitical congruence and people to people ties.

Geopolitical convergence

Our geopolitical congruence flows from three core factors.

First, as partners in the Indo-Pacific we are each grappling with the implications of the fading of US strategic predominance and the sharpening ambition of China to become the predominant power in the region.

Second, both Australia and India support a rules based international order. That order, the product of decades of United States-led investment in global institutions and public goods, is under increasing threat. Its defenders are shrinking and its challengers growing. Since Australia can neither buy nor bully its way in the world, a system based on rules not might is important.

Third, India is a partner in seeking to forge regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific which are inclusive, promote further economic integration and can help at the margins to manage the tensions which inevitably flow as economic growth across the region shifts strategic weight and relativities. That is why India should be brought into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Moreover, both Australia and India see China as an important part of inclusive regional institutions, especially the East Asia Summit (EAS). And both countries attach a high priority to our relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the individual countries of Southeast Asia.

So while India will always march to its own strategic tune and cherish its strategic autonomy, the scope for us to work together on the broader challenges of the Indo-Pacific is growing as is India's willingness to work with the United States, Japan and Australia in ways which capture the growing strategic convergence of these four democracies.

From Australia's perspective it is India's liberal democratic and secular character which provides a foundation for this evolving strategic congruence. Some worry that this defining and tested feature of India is under strain. That seems an exaggerated fear at this time. But anything which materially weakens India's democratic credentials or its commitment to a secular liberal society would not only be a tragedy for India but also call into question the very basis of our strategic partnership.

People to people ties

The third pillar of the relationship – our growing people to people links – may over time prove to be the most significant asset of all.

India is currently our largest source of skilled migrants, our second largest source of international students and a substantial proportion of those who come to Australia under temporary visas to fill skilled positions that Australians cannot.

In the last decade we have seen a very large increase in the size of the Indian diaspora in Australia, now 700,000 strong and the fastest growing large diaspora in Australia. To reach this size in a little over a decade is remarkable.

This diaspora will have a big role to play in the partnership of the future. They can go into the nooks and crannies of a relationship where governments cannot. They can shape perceptions in a way governments cannot. And they create personal links, in business, the arts, education, and civil society which can help anchor the relationship.

Chapter 18 provides a detailed analysis of the Indian diaspora in Australia and its potential role in building the business relationship with India. It points to the likely growing political influence of the Indian diaspora, something which is already evident in state politics. As they have in Canada, the Indian diaspora may prove over the next two decades to be the most politically active of any migrant group in Australian history since the Irish. This will have implications for the priority our political leaders will place on the relationship with India.

Ten Sectors and Ten States: the core of the strategy

Economics, geopolitics and people form the three core pillars of the relationship we must build with India. But Australian business needs something beyond this macro framework; a mapping of the terrain of opportunity; an entry point into how best to think about the Indian market; how to make sense of its size and diversity and where to begin.

The core of the economic strategy set out in this report is 'sectors and states'.


This report identifies 10 sectors in an evolving Indian market where Australia has competitive advantages. These in turn are divided into a flagship sector (education), three lead sectors (agribusiness, resources and tourism) and six promising sectors (energy, health, financial services, infrastructure, sport, science and innovation). I have not included defence and security among the priority sectors but, in light of the government's broader priority on defence exports I have included a chapter on the opportunities in this area.

Identifying sectors is not choosing winners: only pointing to the areas which hold promise for Australian trade and investment in a growing market where there will be large gaps between what India needs and what it can provide from domestic resources.

The sectoral analysis is forward looking but it cannot escape extrapolations from the current situation. I recognise at the outset that the future may in some areas be quite different to extrapolations. Indeed over a 20 year period there may well be opportunities which no one can clearly see today.

Education is identified as the flagship sector of the future because of a combination of Australian expertise, the scale of India's education deficit and the way in which an education and training demand weaves its way through virtually every sector of the Indian economy.

Education is so much more than increasing the number of Indian students coming to Australia. It also signals engagement, collaboration, a responsiveness to the priorities of India and a bridge between our two communities. Australia's education relationship with India needs to focus on a message of quality, on postgraduate and research collaboration, on science and innovation, on forging partnerships to deliver cost effective vocational education in India and partnering with India in the digital delivery of education. The last will be crucial if India is to meet its ambitious target of upskilling 400 million Indians.

The three lead sectors are chosen because they are areas where Australia is well positioned to become a top five partner of India. The six promising sectors represent areas where Australia can position itself as a niche provider in a large market.

In the chapters that follow we delve deeply into each of these 10 sectors: providing an analysis of its trajectory out to 2035, the drivers of growth including which Indian states to focus on, the constraints, and the opportunities for Australian exports and two way investment in the short, medium and long term.


The focus on states reflects a number of judgements. First, India is best seen not as a single economy but as an aggregation of very different state economies, each growing at different rates, driven by different strengths, led in different ways and likely to continue to be uneven in their progress.

Second, competitive federalism is becoming a larger part of the underlying dynamic of the Indian economy. It is encouraged by the centre and is being enthusiastically embraced by the states, especially those five states which produce 70 per cent of India's exports.

Third, many of the hardest structural reforms holding back the Indian economy, such as land access and labour market regulation, are more likely to be progressed by state governments rather than centrally.

Fourth, as barriers to trade across state borders reduce, and the introduction in 2017 of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) was the single biggest step in this direction, labour and capital will gravitate towards those states which offer the best conditions and prospects for business.

The Central Government will always be important for doing business in India. It sets the macroeconomic policy framework, especially in terms of foreign investment policy. Constitutionally powers are both divided and shared between the centre and the states. But the centre has a reach which often goes well beyond the black letter of the constitution.

However it is states which practically control many of the things which make the day to day life of a foreign business in India easy or difficult: access to land, regulation of labour, provision of infrastructure, the application and interpretation of regulation and so on.

For all these reasons, the strategy recommends that a focus on sectors be matched with a focus on states. Ten states are selected: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Punjab, the National Capital Region of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Other states may also present opportunities but the weight of effort should be in these 10 states.

The choice of states reflects a combination of their economic heft, their commitment to reform, their relevance to the sectors where Australia has competitive advantages, the ease of doing business there, their investment in the social and physical infrastructure which drives growth and their economic potential in the future.

A focus on states includes an important role for Australian states, each of which are keen to do more in India and are especially important in promoting Indian investment in Australia.

The intersection of these 10 sectors and 10 states is at the heart of the strategy recommended in this report. It is a strategy designed to play to Australia's economic strengths, make planning for entry into the Indian market more manageable, respond to India's priorities, identify where the future growth is, and plug into the benefits of competitive federalism in India.


Chapter 2: The Investment Story looks at the broader investment outlook in India. Each of the sectoral chapters also includes a section on the two way investment opportunities and how trade and investment can reinforce each other.

Today, the Australia India investment relationship is small. Yet we are both countries dependent on foreign investment to lift our growth and standard of living.

In virtually all of Australia's relationships in Asia, direct investment lags trade by a wide margin. India holds out the prospect of being different. It has a relatively open foreign investment regime, more open than its approach to trade. It has the rule of law although long delays (it takes an average of four years for courts to resolve a commercial case) considerably erode this advantage. Its institutions are familiar to Australians, both derived from British models, and English is widely spoken – a very significant asset. Automation, artificial intelligence and India's own services sector moving up the value chain means investing in India is no longer about offshoring labour-intensive tasks.

In short, we may have a better chance with India to secure more balance between our trade and investment relationship than we have with any other major Asian economy. Indeed we should set ourselves the ambition by 2035 for India to be the third largest destination in Asia for outward Australian investment.

This is a big target given our low starting point. But attracting foreign investment is a key element in the Indian economic model and over 20 years India's policy framework on foreign investment will become more and more open. India also offers big opportunities in the long term for Australian pension funds and Australian expertise on infrastructure finance is well suited to a country where addressing the infrastructure deficit is essential to economic growth. As the business environment in India improves Australian investors will hopefully pay much closer attention to investment opportunities and the way in which investment and trade come together in the Indian market.

The role of Government

In an ideal world an economic strategy would rest on the business to business relationship with a light touch from government. It is business on both sides which should drive the trade and investment relationship. India however is a market where government cannot be left out of the equation. Indeed governments on both sides have an important role to play in bringing a successful economic strategy to fruition.

A number of countries that are currently doing well in India adopt a national strategy which puts government coordination and leadership at the forefront of their India strategy. Japan and Singapore are two good examples.

At one level an 'Australia Inc' approach to India also makes conceptual sense. The government plays an important role in the Indian economy. Public enterprises still constitute a significant part of India's corporate structure, especially in the banking sector and in resource extraction. The government set policy and regulatory framework is key to many of the sectors which this report identifies as areas of opportunity for Australia in India. Also, the role of market forces is less strong in India's political culture than it is in Australia.

The Australian experience however does not lend itself so easily to an Australia Inc approach. Australian Governments have neither the capacity nor the inclination to direct business much less expend substantial resources to assist Australian companies enter and thrive in the Indian market.

We have to find our own settling point for the role of government in an India economic strategy: one that reflects the Australian system and experience where business is done by companies not governments.

But this does not mean a hands off approach by government. This is a report to the Australian Government with a natural focus on what the government should do. It starts with the premise that the government has an important role to play in facilitating trade and investment with India.

This report identifies six areas where the Australian Government should play an active role.

First, applying sustained high level attention to the bilateral relationship with India led at the highest levels of the Australian Government and including a regular pattern of prime ministerial and ministerial visits. Each of the 10 sectors identified in this report should have a ministerial champion at the federal level, reinforced by the work of the Commonwealth Public Service and Australian state governments.

Second, government has a role in raising awareness of the opportunities in the Indian market. This does not mean boosterism. We need to navigate between the hype that India is the next China and the outdated pessimism that India is just too hard.

Third, government, and particularly agencies such as DFAT and Austrade, have an important role in helping Australian firms understand the complexities of the Indian market place and India's business culture, including how to go about finding the right Indian partner and understanding the broader political economy of India.

Fourth, the government should invest the resources to ensure we have an adequate diplomatic and trade footprint in India. This is particularly important for a strategy that focuses on Indian states and cities. Australia starts in a strong position. We have one of the most extensive networks of diplomatic and especially trade offices in India, now numbering 11 offices. But we need to do more including opening new Consulates-General in Kolkata and Bengaluru.

Fifth, government is the only player that can lead a policy dialogue with India that looks at our respective experiences in policy reforms and regulatory controls. Virtually all of the sectors identified in this report are highly dependent on the right policy and regulatory framework. The economic opportunities in both directions will depend on the economic policy settings of each government. This underlines the need for a deeper policy dialogue between Australia and India which also brings in the private sector to ensure that policy changes reflect commercial realities and priorities and facilitates business engagement. A deeper policy dialogue with India will help us better understand the drivers of Indian economic policy and the role of the state in India's political culture, just as it might help India better understand the limits that government can play in the Australian context.

Sixth, government has a unique role to play in enhancing the understanding of Australia in India. The truth is – that at a community level – neither of us know much about the other. The Indian elite has traditionally not looked to Australia. That is beginning to change, but only slowly. And for the broader Indian community, images of Australia tend to be sketchy, shaped by cricket, historical connections and sporadic coverage in the Indian media.

Similarly, in Australia, there is very little understanding of contemporary India in the wider community. Australians, for the most part, have only a partial glimpse of India's diversity, its sophistication and of the scale of its prospects.

If our partnership is to reach its full potential we must modernise our perceptions of each other. It is in our interests to do away with misconceived notions of what the other stands for.

What we achieve together in coming decades will have little to do with a shared imperial past. It will have not much to do with the English language, although that will greatly help. And it will have to be a tighter bond than anything forged on a cricket field. Rather, it will turn on gaining a real understanding of each other, of where we differ but also what brings us together including shared interests and the strength of our diversity.

The role of business

Just as government has a large role to play in an enhanced India economic strategy, so also do we need stronger business to business relationships.

The current structures which underpin the business to business relationship are not strong enough to support a larger trade and investment relationship. The Australia-India CEO Forum is a useful vehicle but it needs an agenda beyond its meetings which themselves should be brought into a regular annual cycle.

Similarly the Australia India Business Council (AIBC) needs more clout. It should include the big corporates who do business in India as well as the small and medium enterprise (SME) membership which is its current focus. The AIBC also needs to broaden much further beyond the diaspora community and in the process be less susceptible to the factionalism which too often plagues diaspora groups.

A more active role by the Business Council of Australia (BCA) would be one means of strengthening the business to business relationship. The BCA would make a good secretariat for the CEO Forum, giving it some business heft and aligning it more closely with Australia's business priorities.

There should also be a much closer relationship between the BCA and AIBC and the Indian industry groups such as the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Association of Chambers of Commerce which play such a key role in promoting India's business links with its major trading partners.

The current business to business architecture struggles to keep up with the existing relationship let alone pave the way for the larger relationship to come. Its leadership is dedicated and eager to do more but it is constrained by limited resources and a volunteer base. This must change and the government should do what it can to facilitate that change.

The strategy outlined in this report goes to how Australia positions itself to build a long term and sustainable partnership with India. It is for the most part a strategy about Australia in India. For the partnership to be complete however there also needs to be a strategy for India in Australia and I hope that is something the Indian Government will consider. A unilateral strategy can only partially succeed. A partnership, on the other hand, rests on that most enduring of foundations: mutual interests.

India is already in the first tier of Australia's diplomatic relations. It has been a high foreign policy priority for at least two decades. But the economic relationship is stuck in the second tier. This report is about how we can change that and place the economic relationship at the centre of our partnership with India.