New Delhi: Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell has said joint defence activities between the countries have increased four-fold in the last six years, which includes joint exercises such as AUSINDEX and Exercise Pitch Black, as well as the Malabar naval exercise, for which they came together with the US and Japan.
In an interview with ThePrint, conducted over Zoom, the high commissioner said the recent signing of a key defence pact — Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) — will boost these military exercises, thereby strengthening “future activities”.
The MLSA was signed during the virtual India-Australia Summit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in June 2020, elevating the countries’ bilateral ties to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
“During (exercise) Malabar, we saw the type of cooperation envisaged by the MLSA. However, attention focused on Malabar has masked the four-fold increase in defence activities over the past six years between India and Australia, which includes the AUSINDEX, which is Australia’s biggest and most complicated bilateral naval exercise; and Exercise Pitch Black, involving airway forces,” O’Farrell said.
Exercise Pitch Black is a biennial three-week multilateral air combat training exercise, hosted by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). It was last held in 2018. It was supposed to be held in July-August this year, but had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The two navies have also built a strong convergence through regular exercises, such as AUSINDEX, conducted biennially. The last one was held in 2019, and the next is expected to be held in 2021.
“Our strong defence relationship, which is the rock of our relationship, will see a continuation of these types of joint activities, and the MLSA will underpin future activities,” the top diplomat added.
Australia has hiked its defence budget by 40 per cent this year, as it gears up for a “dangerous world”, according to PM Morrison. The country’s bilateral ties with China have been steadily deteriorating.
However, according to the high commissioner, the budget increase is not directed against any one country or countries, but is a reflection of national priorities.
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‘Undeniable success of Malabar’
Australia joined Exercise Malabar this year after 13 years, following a meeting of the Quad countries — Australia, US, India and Japan — held in Tokyo in October 2020.
Exercise Malabar was held in two phases this November, in the Bay of Bengal and the northern Arabian Sea. High Commissioner O’Farrell said Malabar has sent out a strong signal that the Quad are now working together “quadrilaterally, trilaterally and bilaterally”.
“The undeniable success of Malabar this year helps to tell a broader story — that Australia, India, Japan and the US are working together quadrilaterally, trilaterally and bilaterally to demonstrate a common purpose, to support a secure, open and inclusive region,” he said.
“So, growing our defence engagement with these important regional parties paves the way for a deeper, more sophisticated cooperation, enabling us to conduct more complex engagements under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in future. We will see more of it,” O’Farrell said.
The high commissioner also said the Quad is a “diplomatic forum” under which all the member countries will cooperate with each other across all aspects — from defence and security to addressing the pandemic.
He also said the incoming US administration under President-elect Joe Biden will maintain this focus.
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‘Will support whatever India decides on RCEP’
Despite its growing tensions with China, Australia did sign the mega trade pact Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), in which Beijing is one of the prominent members.
The RCEP is a trade agreement signed between the 10 ASEAN members — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — and their five trade partners — Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. India had walked out of the RCEP in November last year due to its concerns over Chinese goods flooding the markets.
“We make decisions on the basis of our national interest. As a trading nation, Australia supports open markets and encourages expanded trade and investment. We also recognise trade and investment will be key to re-building our economies post Covid, and ensuring future sustained economic development,” the envoy explained.
“RCEP is to be the world’s largest FTA, which brings together nine of Australia’s top 15 trading partners into a single economic framework. So, Australia saw sense and national interest making that decision,” he continued.
But High Commissioner O’Farrell added that the “door is open for India” to join the RCEP as a member. For now, it can participate in RCEP activities as an ‘observer’.
“The ministerial declaration of 15 November says that the door remains open for India to join the RCEP. But that declaration also noted that India will be able to participate as an observer at future RCEP meetings, and in any economic cooperation activities, even though it hasn’t joined the RCEP. So whatever India ultimately decides, Australia will respect the decision and will continue to support India’s engagement in the trade and economy of the Indo-Pacific,” he stressed.
He also said talks on the pending Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Australia will also be taken forward now, since they had stalled in 2013. However, he added the focus is now on integrating investments between both countries.
Australian investors recently held a virtual meeting with the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF).
“We will continue making progress in CECA… While Australian investors will make their own commercial decisions, increasing Australian investment stocks in India deepens our economic integration,” O’Farrell said.
‘China cannot unilaterally change LAC status quo’
According to the Australian High Commissioner, Canberra is closely watching the developments at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where Indian and Chinese forces have been engaged in a bitter stand-off since April-May.
“Australia continues to monitor closely the developments on the LAC and towards restraints. We’ve consistently opposed any attempts at all to unilaterally alter the status quo at India’s border, and Australia believes it’s important that bilaterally agreed principles and norms, which have helped prevent escalations or miscalculation in border areas over many decades, continue and are applied in this situation,” O’Farrell said.
Last month, the Australian government had sought an apology from China over alleged fake tweets on its army by Beijing.
PM Scott Morrison had also asked the Chinese foreign ministry to delete the “fake” tweet targeted at the Australian Defence Force in the wake of a war crimes inquiry.
“Australia has raised the matter with the Chinese officials in the strongest possible terms, including to China’s ambassador to Australia. The fact is, a report was received detailing allegations of wrong-doing by a small number of Australian troops who served in Afghanistan. That report’s findings were released publicly and an immediate conference by Australia’s chief of defence forces was held. The matter is subject to further investigations,” High Commissioner O’Farrell said.
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