New Delhi: India and Australia Thursday vowed to upgrade their ties to the level of ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ even as both signed the long pending ‘Mutual Logistics Support’ agreement paving the way for greater defence cooperation.
This was decided during a virtual bilateral summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. This is the first time that Modi has held a virtual summit while Morrison had conducted a similar bilateral virtual summit with Singapore in March.
In his opening remarks, Modi said, “…this is a perfect time, perfect opportunity to strengthen bilateral ties between India and Australia.” He added that upgrading the relationship to the level of ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ will prove to be a “factor of stability” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have immense possibilities to make our friendship stronger,” Modi said, adding: “How our relations become a ‘factor of stability’ for our region and for the world, how we work together for global good, all these aspects need to be considered.”
He said it is critical that both India and Australia come together not only for the benefit of these two countries alone but also for the progress of the Indo-Pacific strategic initiative by setting more “ambitious” goals.
The relationship between the two nations was upgraded to a ‘Strategic Partnership’ level in 2009. Since then, both countries have expanded their cooperation in a range of key areas.
In its White Paper on Foreign Policy un 2017, Australia recognised India as the “pre-eminent maritime power among Indian Ocean countries” and a “front-rank partner of Australia”.
‘Sacred responsibility to uphold democracy, rule of law’
Modi also said it is a “sacred responsibility” for both countries to uphold and respect “democracy, rule of law, freedom, mutual respect and respect for international institutions”.
This comes at a time when most countries have blamed China for its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea and Hong Kong while its role has also been questioned in the World Health Organization (WHO) with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Prime Minister further said India has decided to turn the coronavirus crisis into an “opportunity” and have started reform across all sectors.
Both sides also signed nine pacts, the key ones among them being the Joint Statement on a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Mutual Logistics Support arrangement and Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo- Pacific, and MoU on cooperation in the field of mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals, among others.
Some of the pacts are reflective of the bilateral economic engagement, which has been on the upswing in the last few years. According to official data, the trade between the two countries was around $21 billion in 2018-19.
Australia’s cumulative investment in India is about $10.74 billion whereas India’s total investment in Australia is $10.45 billion. The Australian Super Pension Fund has invested $1 billion in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund.
‘India critical for Australia in Indo-Pacific’
Referring to the relationship between India and Australia as “comfortable” and “natural”, Prime Minister Morrison said both countries shared the same “values” as “vibrant and liberal democracies”.
He said finance, trade and defence ministers between both sides will intensify the negotiations in the coming future to upgrade the relationship in a post Covid world.
“In the Indo-Pacific we are committed to an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific. India’s role in that region, our region, will be critical in the years ahead,” Morrison said, adding that the bilateral relationship should become “broader” and “deeper”.
India and Australia have over the years looked to strengthen defence cooperation, particularly with respect to the Indo-Pacific region.
They commenced their first bilateral naval exercise ‘AUSINDEX’ in 2015 focussed at deepening defence and maritime cooperation especially in the Indian Ocean. The third iteration of AUSINDEX, a biennial event, was held in the Bay of Bengal in April last year.
The two armies had also launched exercises, the AUSTRAHIND, in 2016. The fourth edition of AUSTRAHIND was held last September in Australia.
There are also regular staff-to-staff talks between the three wings of the armed forces on both sides.
‘Need open, free & rule-based systems’
Without naming the WHO, Morrison also said Australia believes in “open, free and rules-based multilateral system” be it in the health sector or in trade.
Lauding the fact that India has been able to assume the chairmanship of the Executive Board of WHO, the Aussie PM said, “India’s leadership will be critical to see how we deal with the many difficult problems we are encountering, particularly, in the health area.”
The summit was initially scheduled to take place in January for which Prime Minister Morrison was supposed to visit India with his family on 13 January, but the trip got cancelled due to the bushfire crisis there.
Morrison said he missed the “Modi hug” and sharing a plate of “Gujarati khichdi” with him.
With PTI inputs