India, Australia Discuss Freedom of Navigation, Further Ties

The countries also pledged to expand counter-terror operations and take action against those financing and providing sanctuary to terror groups.

New Delhi: With an eye on China, the Indian and Australian prime ministers on Monday asserted that there should be freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. The countries also pledged to expand counter-terror operations and take action against those financing and providing sanctuary to terror groups.

For the first time, the India-Australian joint statement said that the two leaders “underscored the importance of respecting the maritime legal order based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”.

“Both leaders recognised that India and Australia share common interests in ensuring maritime security and the safety of sea lines of communication. Both leaders recognised the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as resolving maritime disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS,” it said.

Both India and Australia have been relatively more assertive in expressing concern about China’s activity in the South China Sea, but have usually walked a fine balance. The joint statement, for example, does not refer to China by name, but the context is rather clear.

The last two India-Australia joint statements in 2014 had no reference – direct or indirect – to the South China Sea.

However, no breakthrough agreement was achieved during talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, who merely decided to direct their respective officials to hold an early round of negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.

During their talks, the two leaders decided to significantly expand their ties in several key areas including defence, trade, energy and education.

While Modi thanked Turnbull for passage of a legislation by the Australian parliament with bi-partisan support paving way for the country to export uranium to India, Turnbull said he was looking forward to starting the supply “as soon as possible”.

Modi and Turnbull agreed that the bilateral maritime exercise first held in the Bay of Bengal in 2015 will be repeated off Western Australia in the first half of 2018.

On defence ties, the statement said both countries remain strongly committed to the breadth of their defence ties and recalled the Special Forces Bilateral Exercise conducted in October 2016. “They also welcomed a decision for the first bilateral Army-to-Army exercise to take place in 2018. They looked forward to the inaugural secretaries’ defence and foreign affairs dialogue in the ‘2+2’ format as a new mechanism to build on the deep strategic partnership.”

Modi and Turnbull also emphasised on the need for an early peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan through Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process; and called for ending external support for terrorism.

On the issue of students, the Australian prime minister said he will ensure that they get outstanding opportunities.

The two leaders also decided to deepen efforts to “deter and disrupt” human trafficking, including to ensure the return of persons, subject to verification by Indian and Australian authorities.

Turnbull reiterated Australia’s support for India’s membership of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). Modi also welcomed Australia’s continuing support for India as a permanent member in a reformed United Nations Security Council.

Recognising India’s strong economic trajectory, Turnbull informed Modi he would commission an India Economic Strategy to define a pathway for the Australian business community to collaborate with India on its reform agenda.

The statement also said India and Australia are keen to secure a timely conclusion of a high quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The Australian prime minister also congratulated Modi on his leadership in setting up of the International Solar Alliance and announced that Australia intends to join the alliance.

On India’s skill development programme, Turnbull said Australia’s industry-led vocational education and training system can play a key role training 400 million Indians by 2022.

On the sports sector, Turnbull invited “elite” Indian sports teams to train in Australia ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast.

The two leaders also took the Delhi metro together to visit the Akshardham temple.

(With PTI inputs)

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