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India, Australia may ink landmark defence pact on Thursday, indicates Aussie envoy

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NEW DELHI (PTI): After years of negotiations, India and Australia are expected to sign a landmark agreement on reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support during an online summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on Thursday.

Australian High Commissioner Barry O'Farrell told reporters during an online media briefing that the summit is expected to take the bilateral ties to a "historic" high as the two leaders will focus on ways to further deepen cooperation in a range of areas including trade, energy and defence.

"We have talked about what we expect to come out of the summit. Obviously mutual logistics support agreement is one of those things. That will make it easier for defence forces of both the countries to conduct complex exercises like AUSINDEX," he said. The AUSINDEX is a bilateral naval exercise between India and Australia.

The pact will allow militaries of the two countries to use each other's bases and facilities for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall cooperation.

India has already signed a similar agreement with the US, France and Singapore.

O'Farrell said the pact will be an important stepping stone to facilitate deeper defence engagement between the two countries.

The summit talks between Modi and Morrison were originally scheduled to take place in January. However, they were postponed as the Australian prime minister had to cancel his four-day state visit to India due to the raging bush-fire crisis in his country.

Asked how he sees the virtual summit, O'Farrell said: "It will be like a virtual interview, I suppose, although you have two friends on either side probably asking each other questions about the obvious issues, not just how each country is dealing with COVID-19."

He said there have been some "great similarities" between the approaches of both the leaders in dealing with the pandemic.

"Both the leaders are people's persons. They will be talking about issues with a focus on how to work together to improve the lives of their citizens," the envoy said.

"I think both clearly understand that government is not just about theoretical issues, not just about number of agreements you sign, but it is about what you can do to help your citizens improve their lives," he said.

"In the virtual summit between the two leaders, you will see the Australia-India relationship reaching a historic high, matched by an ambitious agenda by both countries on what we can achieve in the future," he said.

O'Farrell said the focus of the talks will be to boost cooperation in areas like public health, education, science and technology cooperation, cybersecurity and critical technology and defence.

"Over the past months and years, we have seen India and Australia work even more closely together on shared goals particularly in contributing to a more secure, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific," he said.

The envoy said further enhancing bilateral maritime security as well as expanding cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region would be other key areas for talks.

Asked about US President Donald Trump's call for inclusion of India and Australia in G7 grouping along with two other countries, the Australian envoy said global organisations should always be ready to adapt to realities of an ever changing world.

He also supported Modi's call for strengthening the WHO.

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