Tim Ayres, the Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister focusing on the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), expressed optimism and satisfaction about the evolving economic ties between the two nations. Highlighting the speedy ratification of the ECTA agreement by both the Australian Parliament and their Indian counterparts, Ayres emphasized its immediate impact on businesses. Speaking to our diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal in Delhi, Ayres said, “Australian businesses are already utilizing the provisions of the agreement to enhance market access and engagement with Indian firms.”

Ayres shed light on the ongoing negotiations for a more comprehensive economic agreement, lauding the remarkable pace at which these discussions are progressing. “Just months after its ratification, we are already five significant meetings deep into negotiations,” he said, affirming the ambitious approach towards fostering greater economic collaboration but pointed out that its conclusion is about “ambition and not about artificial deadlines”

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Speaking about the priorities in the trade relationship, Ayres spotlighted key sectors such as critical minerals, digital economy, higher education, agribusiness, and Agri tech. He underlined that both governments are united in their pursuit of mutual benefits and advancements. Additionally, Ayres expressed gratitude for India’s hosting of the G20 trade ministers meeting in Jaipur, stressing its importance in rebuilding confidence in rules-based trade and addressing global challenges.

Echoing India’s call for reforms at the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ayres emphasized the shared responsibility of G20 ministers in leading the reform effort. “Reform is required at the WTO,” he stated, acknowledging the need for consensus to strengthen the dispute settlement mechanism. He is in India for the G20 Trade Ministers meeting that took place in Jaipur last week.

Sidhant Sibal, WION: With me is the Australian assistant trade minister, Welcome to WION, just coming from the G 20 trade ministers meeting, my first question is on the G 20 trade ministers meeting How was the meeting and how do you see the outcome deciding the geopolitics of trade given the fact that there are concerns as well, especially on the weaponisation of trade?

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: We’re very pleased to be here to be here. The agenda in front of the G20 trade ministers is a complex and important task. And I was very grateful for Minister Piyush Goyal’s efforts, first of all in the excellent hosting of this G20. But also in encouraging the trade ministerial to focus on the issues that matter as we approach the WTO trade ministerial, in Abu Dhabi next year. That’s going to be a vital trade ministerial for the world. As we make sure we rebuild confidence in the World Trade Organization, and rules-based trade, as we resolved some of the key trade issues that go towards the economic challenges that the globe is facing, the climate and energy challenges the world is facing, and also the key food security challenges that the world is facing. Trade is an important part of the answer here and India’s leadership in focusing the ministerial and the discussions on the issues that matter was very welcoming. 

Sidhant Sibal, WION: There was no joint statement, there was an outcome statement. Do you see this as concerning or do you see it as part and parcel of G20, now especially after the Ukraine conflict broke last year since then, we have seen almost negligible statements Joint Statement except of course the Bali joint statement.

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: A joint statement in a trade ministers context, 20 trade ministers is a very good outcome. But we should not understate the challenges that the world faces. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is not just a humanitarian catastrophe. It’s been an economic crisis for the world. It’s been bad for energy prices, which has made all of our businesses less competitive and put real pressure on households, it has been bad on food security terms and the cancelling, the unilateral cancelling by Russia, the Black Sea Grant initiative has created an additional crisis for the world’s poor and the global south who need food security to get through the coming years. So it was, it was important that the trade ministerial focused on those issues of real crisis and real challenge, as well as looking to the issues that will strengthen the WTO for the future and provide durable structural reform that’s going to be in the interest of all our economies. 

Sidhant Sibal, WION: India has been calling for reforms of trading bodies like WTO as well. What’s your take on that?

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: Well, we share India’s view that reform is required at the WTO, there’s been excellent leadership by the WTO, Director General. There is a shared task in front of the G 20 ministers to lead that reform effort and to build consensus around making sure that the dispute settlement mechanism has the confidence of all of the countries and economies engaged in the WTO.

Sidhant Sibal, WION: Supply chains should be reformed as well. There has been a strong emphasis from the Indian side, from the Australian side, and the Japanese side, what’s your view as to how these countries and of course, like-minded partners can work together to form new supply chains

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: You’re right, the discussion, the collective discussion between the G20 would focus on supply chain reliability and supply chain diversity. What I’m most interested in here in terms of the discussions that Australia has led, there have been direct discussions with India over the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) agreement and the forthcoming comprehensive economic agreement between Australia and India. There are enormous opportunities for Indian firms, for Indian workers in the Indian economy and for Australian firms to diversify our supply chain, strengthen our resilience, and cooperate in the areas of the economy that are going to matter for the development of both of our countries and also deliver significant spillover benefits for the region that India and Australia share. I was delighted with the approach taken by my Indian counterparts particularly Minister Goyal on those questions, and I’m looking forward to more progress and an early finalization of that important economic instrument from Australia and India.

Sidhant Sibal, WION: I was coming to that point. So early finalization, any timeline for this early finalization are we looking at?

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: It is all about ambition and not about artificial deadlines. I am very pleased with the progress that has been made. The ECTA agreement was ratified in record time by the Australian Parliament and on the Indian side. It is already delivering tangible benefits for Australian businesses who’ve reported to me that they are already using the business investment and trade facilitation provisions of that agreement to improve their market access and their engagement with the Indian firms and we are already just months after its ratification, five significant meetings deep into negotiations over the more comprehensive economic agreement, that is fast progress by anybody’s estimation. I think it represents the determination of Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Albanese to conclude this agreement, and to use it as part of every growing friendship between Australia and India, delivering tangible benefits for our businesses, but also for economic development collectively. 

Sidhant Sibal, WION: India has a “Make in India” policy, what’s your view on that policy? 

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: Well, it’s an opportunity for Australian business. You can see, in the few days that I’ve been here the excitement and vitality in the Indian economy, the moon landing on the day that I arrived here in Bengaluru, was just so exciting. And you could see the sense of national pride and civic pride in that technological achievement. You can see the determination of the Modi government to build in Indian manufacturing in the next phase also, low carbon, high opportunity economic development, and there’s an opportunity for Australia to participate in investment terms. To participate with our exports in commodity terms, but also going up the value chain and making sure that we’re participating in that economic boom, it’s going to be good for India’s national economic development. But India’s development is a good thing for the world.

Sidhant Sibal, WION: So trade has been a major pillar of the Indian-Australian relationship, especially after the signing of the ECTA, so where do you see trading ties between the 2 countries, if you can crystal gaze, the trading relationship, the investment relationship between the two countries perhaps five years from now?

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: We will see the direction the two governments are focused on together, we want to see progress in critical minerals and critical minerals supply chains, in production opportunities in Australia and in providing critical minerals products to the Indian economy in Indian manufacturing. You can see the opportunities that the governments are pursuing in the digital economy, in higher education, in agribusiness and Agri tech. Areas where the two governments have nominated opportunities and of course, the broader business relationship, is just so helpful. I’m leaving here a delegation of 80 Australian CEOs and business leaders and they are absolutely energized with the opportunities for new business and creating new opportunities and development in the Indian economy and in Australia. It’s a very exciting time to be here in New Delhi with the business, the Australian business community and the B20, that India is leading.

Watch | Australian Minister Ayres supports swift economic talks with India

Sidhant Sibal: Weaponization of trade by China, how concerning it has been? 

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: We’re working through in a systematic way, dealing with the impediments that have been put in front of Australian Trade to China. I am pleased with the progress that we’ve made thus far, as we work through those issues in a calm and deliberate way with the Chinese government. There is still some progress to make before, we can say that trade between China and Australia has returned to normal, and we are we are focused on those issues. It’s very important for the rules-based order that unilateral impediments not be imposed on trade and that trade be allowed to flow freely between countries on the basis of the rules that have been agreed to by all this. That’s in the interest of Australian exporters. It’s also an interest of Chinese consumers and Chinese businesses. And of course, there is a global interest. So we will continue to work through those issues in a steady way. Right now in India of course are focused on the opportunities to diversify Australian Trade, in terms of our market opportunities, but also in terms of the Australian products that we offer to the world. And I’m very keen to get on with that. 

Sidhant Sibal, WION: So my last question for you, is there are concerns over Khalistani violence in Australia. I’m asking you this question as a minister, not as a trade minister. So what do you have to see on that, on vandalization of temples? We have seen comments by your government as well if you could talk about that.

Tim Ayres, Australian Assistant Minister for Trade: Firstly, there is no room for vandalism, for that kind of activity in Australia and we condemn that. There is of course freedom of expression in both of our countries. We are great democracies. India is the largest democracy in the world. And there is freedom of expression in both of our countries. But it’s very important that freedom of expression be exercised in a way that is consistent with the law. And the Australian Government will continue to monitor that.

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