New Delhi: India and Australia on Wednesday signed an agreement to promote the mobility of students and businessmen, while the Indian prime minister again brought up the issue of attacks on temples and activities of Khalistan groups in the continent-wide nation.
On the last day of his three-nation visit, Narendra Modi held talks with his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese at Admiralty House in Sydney. A day earlier, he took part in a rally organised to welcome Modi that was attended by thousands of supporters of the Indian prime minister among the large diaspora in Australia.
This is their sixth meeting this year. Modi’s visit to Australia takes place just three months after Albanese travelled to India. The key reason for Modi’s visit was the Quad summit, but US President Joe Biden cancelled his trip due to domestic reasons. The Quad summit was held on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Japan, but Modi went ahead with his trip to Australia.
Following the formal talks, the two signed a Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement, which Albanese stated would “promote the exchange of students, graduates, researchers and business people; expand our people-to-people ties and enhance cooperation in preventing people smuggling”.
Besides, they also witnessed the signing of the terms of reference for the Australia-India Green Hydrogen Taskforce.
The two leaders also renewed their commitment to conclude negotiations regarding a comprehensive economic and investment agreement.
There was, however, no mention of the situation in Ukraine. While Australia is completely aligned with the West and has imposed sanctions on Russia for the invasion, India has been reticent to directly criticise Moscow, though Modi has said this is “not an era for war”.
While Albanese said that they had agreed to an early conclusion of the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) “later this year”, Modi partially echoed his statement, as he did not cite any particular deadline.
“We had constructive discussions on strengthening our strategic cooperation in the sectors of mining and critical minerals. We identified concrete areas for cooperation and in the renewable energy sector,” Modi noted.
India and Australia signed the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) in April 2022, and it came into force in December last year. The CECA will expand the scope of the ECTA, with chapters on investment protection. Bilateral trade was estimated to be around $27 billion in 2021-22.
At a media briefing, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra did not give any details of any schedule for completing negotiations for the CECA. “Well, for those who asked about the deadline, I would only refer you to the fact that the next two rounds have been planned for June and July,” he said.
The Indian PM also raised concerns about the graffiti attacks on Hindu temples and activities of “separatist” elements, which is usually a reference for pro-Khalistan groups in Australia. He had previously taken up this matter during the visit of Albanese to India in March.
“Prime Minister Albanese and I have in the past discussed the issue of temples in Australia and activities of separatist elements. We discussed this also again today. We will not accept any elements that harm the friendly and warm ties between India and Australia by their actions or thoughts – I thank the prime minister for the actions that have already been taken. Prime Minister Albanese has once again assured me today that he will take strict actions against such elements in the future,” he said.
Even during the media briefing, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra said that Albanese had told Modi that “Australia would take strong actions against such elements that want to disrupt the strong and deep ties and the Australia-India relationship”.
It is not clear which “strong actions” that the Australian government has taken which India has commended.
Earlier this month, a city council in Sydney had cancelled the booking for a pro-Khalistan ‘referendum’, on grounds of safety. However, the city council claimed that it wasn’t a political decision and shouldn’t be seen as a statement of “support for any particular political position”.
Australian media had reported then that several Australian Sikh groups has condemned the attacks on Hindu temples, and called for resolving the tensions between the two religious groups.
In an interview with CNN-News 18, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong said that while action would be taken against violence, the right to peaceful protest would also be respected.
“And, you know, we have had an appropriate security response to the violence against religious places including Hindu temples and that is to be condemned. And what we would say there is no place for that in Australia. We do, people have a right to peaceful protest. That is something Australians expect. But there is a line and we do not want people to cross it and if that is crossed then obviously the law will respond,” she said.
The Australian foreign minister also indicated that the ‘referendum’ would be allowed to go ahead, pointing out that its outcome was meaningless.
“Well, as I’ve said, the so-called, you know, the protest which was held, the so-called referendum‘ has – is simply a political – is a protest, it has no effect and ought [to] be dismissed in terms of any effect. I mean, I don’t even want to talk about the territorial integrity of India because it seems to sort of give weight to something which has no weight,” she said.