New Delhi: At their first ever virtual summit, India and Australia on Thursday signed an important deal for reciprocal access to each other’s military bases for logistical support. The countries upgraded their relations to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was supposed to have visited India earlier this year, but his visit was postponed due to devastating wild fires in the country. Then, the coronavirus pandemic led to countries shutting down borders, which made any physical meeting between the leaders unfeasible for the next couple of months.
The virtual summit began with the two prime ministers reading out their statements. This was telecast live. Morrison said he had cooked samosas last weekend – something he had also tweeted on – and said he hoped to have Gujarati khichdi when he finally visits India in person.
After the opening remarks, the meeting went off camera and the delegations began their discussions.
At the conclusion, the two sides announced that seven agreements had been signed, including the long-awaited Mutual Logistics Support Agreement. Unlike in an usual summit where there is a ceremony for signing agreements, these documents had been signed, scanned and exchanged through correspondence.
The two countries also released a declaration on “‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” that advocated for a “rules-based maritime order that is based on respect for sovereignty and international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law”.
The two leaders sat for their virtual meeting when both their respective countries are in a testy patch with China.
China has been railing against Australia for the latter having pushed for an international investigation into the source and initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while Indian and Chinese soldiers are engaged in a stand-off in multiple points in eastern Ladakh.
However, while China’s shadow loomed over the summit, current troubles were not discussed by the two leaders.
“There was no discussion on China in the virtual summit between India and Australia,” said MEA secretary (east) Vijay Thakur Singh during an online media briefing on Thursday evening.
There was also no discussion on “specific exercises,” she stated in answer to a query on whether the possibility of Australia being invited to the Malabar naval exercises were discussed.
While India is still wary of inviting Australia to the Malabar exercise, the signing of the MLSA marked a closer defence relationship. “We have an MoU on defence cooperation. The LLSA is under that agreement. Under MLSA, we will be extending support to each other in combined exercises, training, humanitarian and disaster relief operations…So, military bases can be used reciprocally under these conditions,” said Singh.
Besides, in line with the elevated branding of the relationship, the countries also upgraded the two-plus-two dialogues of foreign and defence ministers to the ministerial level.
The discussions at the summit ranged around the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, reforms to the World Trade Organisation, challenges in the Indo-Pacific and combating the threat of terrorism.
Reiterating the centrality of the ASEAN when it comes to strong regional architecture, “both countries agreed to continue to work with the East Asia Summit (EAS) and other ASEAN-led institutions; the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM Plus), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to realise our long-term objectives for the region”.
The QUAD figured in the talks, with the two leaders reaffirming their commitment to the ongoing consultations which were upgraded to ministerial level in September 2019.
With China increasing its footprint in the region, the countries agreed to “exchange views on their respective approaches to the South Pacific region under Australia’s Pacific Step Up and India’s Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), with a view to cooperate in the region”.
The joint statement stated that the two sides have decided to restart talks on a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). There was also discussion on “discussed the issue of taxation of offshore income of Indian firms through the use of the India-Australia Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) and sought early resolution of the issue”.
In answer to a query, Singh said that there was no talk of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in the bilateral discussions. India had walked out of the talks of RCEP in November last year for the region-wide economic pact, that including Australia.