It’s a pity that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could offer “Sunday ScoMosas with mango chutney,” to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi only virtually, via a tweet! The real samosas may have to wait for the pandemic to recede, but the first-ever virtual summit between the leaders of India and Australia on June 4 promises to pack in substantive outcomes that will have a transformational impact on Delhi-Canberra relations.
The two sides decided to hold the virtual summit as it became increasingly clear that a regular in-person summit will not be possible this year due to the stubborn persistence of COVID-19. The decision to hold the virtual summit, rather than wait for months for the situation to become normal again, is also designed to send the message to the region about the importance of the growing strategic partnership between the two countries. “This is the first time that Prime Minister Modi will be holding a “Bilateral Virtual Summit”, which signifies the strengthening of ties with Australia and its upward trajectory,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a statement ahead of Mr Morrison’s visit.
Imparting a new dimension to virtual diplomacy in the times of COVID-19, the overarching focus of the India-Australia e-summit will be on scaling up bilateral partnership in the Indo-Pacific and maritime domain against the backdrop of China’s perceived assertiveness in the region. The big-ticket takeaway from the India-Australia e-summit will be the joint announcement of the long-negotiated Mutual Logistics Support Agreement.
The Logistics pact, modelled on the lines of similar agreements India has inked with the US and France, will enable interoperability between the two defence forces and set the stage for greater strategic and military-to-military collaboration between the two democracies. The pact will enhance joint military exercises and greater India-Australia collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region. Navies of India and Australia have been holding AUSINDEX since 2014.
\“The mutual LSA makes it easier for defence forces of both countries to conduct exercises like AUSINDEX and to facilitate access to each other’s bases,” said Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell. “It is the sort of a relationship we have with many of our allies,” said Mr O’Farrell ahead of the visit.
Against this backdrop, one can expect the two prime ministers to unveil an ambitious agenda for advancing India-Australia cooperation in advancing a “free, secure and open Indian Ocean Region.” The signing of the Mutual Logistics Agreement between India and Australia will bolster bilateral partnership in the Indo-Pacific. The two leaders are also expected to discuss plans for further bolstering the Quadrilateral Dialogue of like-minded democracies, including the US, India, Japan and Australia. Senior diplomats from countries in the Indo-Pacific have been holding regular weekly meetings on issues relating to anti-COVID cooperation in the past few weeks. The two sides are also expected to finalise plans for enhancing defence industry collaboration, with focus on promoting investment by Australian companies in Make in India.
With the pandemic crisis showing no sign of abating, the two sides are expected to announce joint research collaboration in combating the lethal coronavirus which has already afflicted over 5 million people around the globe. In this context, with India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan taking over as executive chair of the WHO, Mr Morrison is expected to seek PM Modi’s support in accelerating the reform of the global health body. Australia has been visibly vocal in campaigning for reforming the WHO and pressing for an independent and partial probe into the origin of the virus in China.
China will be closely watching the India-Australia summit as it takes place at a time when Beijing’s relations with Canberra has plummeted to an all-time low due to the latter’s insistence on demanding China’s alleged responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking to journalists via a video-conference, the Australian envoy stressed that India-Australia ties were at a “historic high” with both countries committed to a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific. “Strengthening relations at this time among like-minded leaders can only be the future of the world,” he said.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.