India, Australia broaden ties in key sectors, skip talks on China

India and Australia on Thursday upgraded their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership and signed several agreements, spanning mining of critical elements, cybersecurity cooperation and defence. These include one that allows their militaries reciprocal access to bases for logistics support.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison also pledged cooperation across a broad spectrum of issues such as terrorism, maritime security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, reform in the World Trade Organization, and dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Defence science and technology, public administration, water resources management, and vocational training were some other areas the two countries shortlisted to deepen their partnership. A key takeaway was a pact on mining critical and strategic minerals.

Modi and Morrison spoke through video link because of the restrictions on international travel imposed following the coronavirus outbreak. Modi said it was the “perfect opportunity” for both countries to deepen relations. “India is committed to expanding its relations with Australia in a comprehensive and quick manner. This is important not only for our two countries but also for the Indo-Pacific region and the world,” Modi said.

India and Australia have a “very, very comfortable relationship. It is a very natural relationship,” Morrison said. “In a time like this, we want to deal very much with friends and trusted partners and this is a partnership that has stood the test time.”

The two prime ministers did not discuss China, according to Indian officials. There was also no mention of Australia joining the Malabar naval exercises that began as a bilateral engagement between the navies of India and the US, but was expanded to include Japan.

Some remarks made by the two leaders made it amply clear that China was very much in their minds when they addressed each other.

Modi noted that global values like democracy, rule of law, freedom, mutual respect, respect for international institutions and transparency were being challenged and “we can strengthen them by strengthening mutual relations.”

The joint statement on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership said it was based on “mutual understanding, trust, common interests and the shared values of democracy and rule of law. It reflects India and Australia’s strong commitment to practical global cooperation to address major challenges like covid-19.”

The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement will allow militaries of the two countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation. India has already signed similar agreements with the US, France and Singapore.

The document on cooperation in the Indo Pacific “formalises maritime cooperation between India and Australia acknowledging both countries key priorities and imperatives,” said Abhijit Singh, analyst with the New Delhi based Observer Research Foundation think tank. “It recognises Australia as a principal partner along with Japan, the US, France and Singapore in the Indian Ocean region,” he said.

The two sides agreed that their prime ministers will increase the frequency of contacts “through reciprocal bilateral visits and annual meetings in the margins of international events”. Both countries also announced upgrading a key dialogue, from foreign and defence secretaries-level, to that of foreign and defence ministers.

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