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India-Australia virtual summit on 4 June, to focus on strengthening defence ties and WHO

The summit is taking place at a time when both sides have joined hands in seeking to probe the Covid-19 outbreak and its origin.

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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison are likely to finally sign the ‘Mutual Logistics Support Agreement’ next week, which will pave the way for greater defence cooperation between the two countries and facilitate large-scale joint military exercises.

The agreement is likely to be signed during a virtual bilateral summit between Modi and Morrison scheduled on 4 June, sources told ThePrint.

The summit was initially scheduled to take place in January for which Prime Minister Morrison was supposed to visit India, but the visit got cancelled due to the bushfire crisis there.

Both sides have since been working out dates to hold the summit. But with the onset of the pandemic, it got delayed further.

During an interview with ThePrint earlier this month, Barry O’Farrell, Australian High Commissioner to India, had said the new defence pact will take defence ties between both the countries, which are close partners under the Indo-Pacific framework, to the next level. 

“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,” the envoy had said.

Also read: Australia vows to cement Quad with India, US, Japan as ‘anti-China’ group gets new life

Cooperation on trade, Indo-Pacific

India and Australia are also planning to discuss ways in which both countries can strengthen their maritime cooperation even as they look at building greater ties under the strategic Indo-Pacific set up, as well as under the Quadrilateral, or Quad, security dialogue. 

During their last phone call on 6 April, Modi and Morrison had “agreed to remain attentive to the wider significance of the India-Australia partnership, including in the Indo-Pacific region, even as they focus on solving the present health crisis,” according to a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs.

Last April, Australia and India witnessed their bilateral naval exercise — AUSINDEX — reach the next level with the participation of the highest number of units so far — four frontline ships with integral helicopters, one submarine and a variety of aircraft, including P8I and P8A long-range Maritime Reconnaissance Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft.

Sources said there are also plans to further consolidate both the navies under the Framework for Security Cooperation that was agreed in 2014. 

Sources also said Australia is expected to once again push India into letting it participate in the trilateral maritime exercise — Malabar — that initially began between India and the US, and later expanded to include Japan.

Sources said with the pandemic wreaking havoc in the Australian economy, Morrison might ask Modi to resume its negotiations on having the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

On Tuesday, addressing a press conference, Morrison had said unemployment and underemployment are expected to rise in his country.

As a result, sources said, the push for greater trade cooperation will be made by Australia.

India and Australia have also been negotiating a bilateral trading pact — Comprehensive  Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) — for a long time. The talks for having a CECA began in 2011.

Also read: China considers more economic pain for Australia amid bitter spat over coronavirus origin

Strengthening WHO, probe into origins of coronavirus 

The summit is taking place at a time when both India and Australia have joined hands in having an international probe into the origins of the coronavirus.

Australia and China had gone into a public spat in March over the origin of the virus and its spread around the world.

It is with Australia’s support that an international resolution was drafted by the European Union to have an independent review of the virus, and the role played by the WHO in alerting the world and how it can be strengthened for future pandemics, sources said.

India has supported the resolution.

“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,” O’Farrell had earlier told ThePrint.

Also read: Modi can’t forget trade war with US just because Trump called him a ‘great friend’ at G-20


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