New Delhi: India and Australia are on the same page when it comes to strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO), even as Canberra is keen on an “international independent review” into the genesis and spread of Covid-19, Australian High Commissioner-designate to India Barry O’Farrell has said.
In an interview to ThePrint over video calling app Skype, O’Farrell said, “We are not going to investigate any country or institution but we do believe an independent review into the pandemic aimed at strengthening the WHO going forward is a sensible thing to do. Like India, Australia is a friend of the WHO. We have seen it do tremendous work in both of our countries.”
The envoy said Australia is making a case for an “international independent review into the genesis and spread of the disease, how countries have dealt with the crisis in their own countries, how information has been shared as they battle the disease and WHO’s engagement as the global response to the pandemic has been rolled out”.
The issue of “strengthening” the WHO is going to feature prominently in the summit-level talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison later this month. The talks were initially scheduled to be held in January, but were cancelled due to the bushfire crisis in Australia.
O’Farrell said Australia is in full agreement with PM Modi’s idea of “strengthening the WHO” that he had highlighted during the G20 virtual summit in March, and is looking forward to New Delhi assuming the chairmanship of WHO Executive Council later this month.
“We think it’s a prudent action. One of PM Modi’s key messages at the G20 summit was the need to strengthen the WHO. I think we are on the same page. We look forward to working together to deliver that outcome for the WHO, of which we are both friends of, and we both provide funds to,” he said.
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The High Commissioner-designate added that the scale of this pandemic should make the world “reflect on how it can better prevent and mitigate another pandemic and ensure that the WHO fits the purpose”.
In the interview, he also spoke on a number of other issues, including cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region with the Indo-Pacific strategic initiative, the RCEP trade deal and bilateral cooperation on Covid-19. Edited excerpts:
‘Free, secure and open Indian Ocean Region is key’
Both the prime ministers at the summit will work towards the stability of the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to alleviate their strategic relationship further with a broader focus on a “free, secure and open Indian Ocean Region” particularly in post-Covid world, Barry O’Farrell said.
The decision to hold the summit meeting this month was taken during a phone call between Modi and Morrison in April, keeping in mind the pandemic. Counterterrorism, cyber-security and maritime security are some of the key issues that will be discussed under the Indo-Pacific strategic set-up.
“We have to realise the great ambition of the India-Australia relationship which is about strengthening the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region,” he said, adding that it is key for both to have a strategic convergence through the Quadrilateral, or Quad, setup.
“The Quad has proved to be a useful forum for coordinated approaches, like-minded democracies to tackle some of the key issues that confront us all. As countries which share borders with a massive ocean, we also have an obligation it’s free and open and secure,” he said.
Defence cooperation growing, pact to be signed
At the summit, India and Australia are also expected to sign the ‘Mutual Logistics Support Agreement’, which would pave the way for greater defence collaboration between the two countries while allowing for large-scale joint military exercises.
“This agreement will put some structures around, especially with naval exercises. It is an important stepping stone in helping to facilitate more complex defence ties between us having a strong interest in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Adding that the defence cooperation between the two sides has quadrupled in the last six years, Barry O’Farrell said the biggest achievement has been the AUSINDEX, the bilateral naval exercise between the navies that has been held since 2014.
Australia is also keen on joining the ‘Malabar’ naval exercise, but that is a decision to take for the participating countries in the trilateral event, he said.
Malabar exercise is a naval event that began between India and the US, and later expanded to include Japan.
‘Doors open for India on RCEP’
As a member country of the mega ASEAN-led trading bloc Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Australia is keen that India comes back to the negotiating table.
“The decision on RCEP is one for the Government of India, not for Australia. But India knows that the door is still open for India to engage with RCEP. It is not till the final quarter of this year that the agreement is meant to be signed. There could be no better time for India to engage than now,” said the Australian High Commissioner-designate to India.
He added that Australia wants India to be a major player in the global supply chain. “A decision to join the RCEP will send a clear signal to the world that India is an attractive place in which to invest, and potential global manufacturing hub,” he added.
India had walked out of the RCEP talks in November last year.
On the issue of the long-pending talks to have a bilateral trading pact, or the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) — the talks for which began in 2011 — the envoy said both parties continue to discuss this but a formal negotiating round has not yet been decided.
Cooperation on Covid, vaccine
According to Barry O’Farrell, despite being on different stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, India and Australia were two countries that took “quick and decisive” action early in the battle.
“Lockdowns and social distancing had been incredibly important in flattening the curve. We both are vibrant democracies. We used our governance structures to persuade our citizens abide by the rules,” he said.
“We have done so in a democratic process. It might be easy in China to close down a province or close down a city, in democracies like Australia and India that’s much harder,” said the envoy.
He added that apart from cooperation in critical Covid-19 drugs and medical devices, India and Australia have also collaborated on developing a vaccine. “We are partnering with India on developing a vaccine. This is one of the rich areas of growth. The common desire is to find as quickly as possible a vaccine.”
Hyderabad-based Indian Immunologicals Limited (IIL) has partnered Australia’s Griffith University to develop the vaccine.
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