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This will be India’s century, says Australian envoy O’Farrell, talks of more military exercises

In exclusive interview, Australian High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell says Canberra is hopeful of interim trade pact by 2021 end, understands agriculture is a 'politically sensitive' subject.

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New Delhi: India and Australia will see an increase in joint military exercises and interoperability between their armed forces in the coming years, and continue to jointly participate in several key multilateral exercises, according to Barry O’Farrell, High Commissioner of Australia to India.

In an exclusive interview with ThePrint, the Australian envoy said that the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is not against any particular country, and that the grouping is focussed on addressing some “existential and critical issues” that the world is facing.

He also highlighted that India and Australia will soon sign an interim trade deal, followed by a larger Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) by 2022.

“I think we are going to see increasing joint activities and increasing interoperability between our two countries. We’ve had two very successful Malabar exercises. Earlier this year, we also participated with France in Exercise La Pérouse,” O’Farrell told ThePrint.

In June 2020, India and Australia upgraded their bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and signed a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) for enhanced defence cooperation.

“Given the challenges the world faces, India’s approach to plurilateralism, its approach to partnering with those countries which are like-minded, that share common perspectives, in order to amplify their influence in this region and across the world, is only going to continue,” he said. “And that will happen particularly because of the geostrategic challenges we are facing.”

The Australian envoy added that Canberra is “looking forward” to Indian forces participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre next year. The biennial exercise is Australia’s largest, led by the Australian Defence Force and the US military, involving large numbers of troops on land, sea and in the air.

The participation of Indian forces in this exercise was announced at the inaugural India-Australia 2+2 dialogue in September 2021.

Explaining the need for more joint military exercises, O’Farrell said these were needed so that “countries are able to operate more effectively together”.

“It’s about ensuring that when we do come together and undertake these exercises, we know how the other partners operate, and that means we can work closely together,” he added.

This year, the Malabar maritime exercise took place in two phases — August and October — with participation from the navies of India, Australia, the US and Japan.

“This is going to be the Indian century. We are seeing the strategic power shift from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific,” O’Farrell said.

Also read: Past FTAs ‘very tough’ on India, have discomfort with ‘old mantras’ of globalisation: Jaishankar

‘Australia hopeful of interim trade pact with India by end of 2021’  

O’Farrell said Australia is “still expecting” that an interim trade agreement will be signed between India and Australia, which will later be upgraded to a much larger CECA that will also include investments.

Earlier this year, during his visit to India, Australia’s Trade Minister Dan Tehan and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal had set the deadline for signing the interim pact by December 2021 and the CECA by 2022.

“India’s economy is growing, and the more it is able to trade with the world, the better it’s going to do,” O’Farrell said, adding that trade deals are “hard” because both countries are democracies.

Australia understands that agriculture is a “politically sensitive” subject, he said, and hence it becomes difficult to negotiate that segment in any kind of trade deal.

“There’s nothing special about the fact that agriculture is a sensitive issue in this democracy in India, because it’s the same in every democracy in the world. Farmers in all democracies get very excited about free trade agreements,” he said, adding that this was why a successful trade pact should be beneficial to both countries.

Earlier this month, former Australian PM Tony Abbott, who is now his country’s special envoy for trade, visited India and reiterated that Canberra recognises the sensitivities around India’s agriculture.

According to O’Farrell, the fact that both sides are working towards a trade and investment pact “augurs well for the future”, emphasising that Australia is the only country in the region that can effectively support the ‘Make in India’ programme.

“If India wants to have a large electric vehicle and a large battery storage industry, if it wants to fulfil its infrastructure ambitions with its demand for steel, we have the inputs, the metallic coal, the critical minerals, the rare earths that, if not from Australia, would be coming from other countries in the region that provide less reliability, less security for an India that’s trying to plan for its economic growth, to give its citizens better opportunities and to lift standards in India,” he said.

Also read: Quad partnership a ‘real, contemporary arrangement’ to look at present issues, says Jaishankar

‘Quad has a positive agenda, not against any country’

Australia, which is also part of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, along with India, the US and Japan, believes that the grouping is about extending practical assistance among partners and with other countries in the Indo-Pacific.

“It is not against any country,” he said, adding, “It has a positive agenda. What the Quad is demonstrating in its very brief existence, but particularly over the last 18 months, is its willingness to address existential and critical issues that the world is facing.”  

He added that the Quad had been addressing issues of climate change and the rollout of vaccines in the Indo-Pacific, and will soon be looking at issues such as energy.

The Quad had its first virtual summit in March this year, followed by an in-person summit in Washington DC in September. The second in-person summit is expected to be held in Japan next month.

O’Farrell said the Quad will continue to “demonstrate practical assistance and help shape the free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific we want to see”.

“India now recognises that Australia has a part to play in the neighbourhood, and Australia clearly understands that India is a natural leader in the region,” he said.

He stressed that as far as China is concerned, Australia is facing its own bilateral challenges with Beijing, and is working towards resolving these.

“No trading nation is going to sit back and ignore economic coercion. We want to be good trading partners with people that are buying our products. We assume when we sell — whether to China or other countries — that the products we are selling are welcome and needed in their countries,” he said.

“Australia will continue to try and settle its issues with China. It will continue to do trade with China as it does with other countries around the world.”

However, he said, “We will continue to find other markets (beyond China), and that’s another reason Australia and India are looking at each other more closely. Clearly, India is the largest economy emerging in the region, and that’s only going to increase.”

‘AUKUS is good for the Indo-Pacific’

O’Farrell also discussed AUKUS, the trilateral partnership among Australia, the UK and the US, under which Canberra will have a robust fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

“AUKUS is good for the neighbourhood. AUKUS is good for any country that operates and lives within the Indo-Pacific because it’s what every country in that region does, which is a national decision to reset their strategic capabilities according to what they believe to be their national interest. AUKUS is good for the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

He also said that despite the differences that have emerged between Australia and France over this deal, Paris will continue to play its role in “securing” the Indo-Pacific region.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Chinese spies accused of using Huawei in secret Australia telecom hack


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