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India-Aus ties become comprehensive strategic partnership in pandemic-riddled 2020 as China looks on

MELBOURNE (PTI):  India-Australia relations touched a new level with both the countries elevating their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, signing key agreements including a landmark pact for reciprocal access to military bases against the backdrop of their frosty relations with China.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had to cancel his trip to India in January, 2020 due to the devastating bushfire season in his country, complemented his Indian counterpart and good friend Narendra Modi for playing an important part in stabilising the strategic Indo-Pacific region during the difficult times when they held their first virtual bilateral summit in June.

India and Australia, against the backdrop of their frosty relations with China, unveiled a ''shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific'', a region which has been witnessing growing Chinese military assertiveness triggering concerns among major players.

There has been strain in ties between Australia and China after Canberra pitched for an international probe into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic which is believed to have started in China's Wuhan city in December 2019.

India and Australia, during the virtual bilateral summit between Modi and Morrison in June, decided to upgrade their 2+2 dialogue featuring their foreign and defence secretaries to the ministerial level, sign the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and another pact on cooperation in the field of mining and rare earth minerals.

The MLSA will allow militaries of the two countries to use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation. India has already signed similar agreements with the US, France and Singapore.

India has been relying heavily on China for critical minerals and the agreement will pave way to source them from Australia, which has one of the largest reserves of strategic minerals.

The two countries, which elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership also vowed to deepen navy-to-navy cooperation, noting that they have a shared interest in promoting maritime security and safety in the Indo-Pacific region.

They also called for an early adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). India proposed a draft document on the CCIT at the UN in 1986 but it has not been implemented as there is no unanimity on the definition of terrorism among the member states.

In another landmark in ties, India in October announced that Australia will join the Malabar exercise which effectively means that all the four member countries of the 'Quad' or Quadrilateral coalition will be participating in the mega drill.

The US and Japan are the other countries that participate in the annual exercise.

India's decision to heed to Australia's request to be part of the mega naval drill had come in the midst of growing strain in ties with China over the border row in eastern Ladakh.

China has been suspicious about the purpose of the Malabar exercise as it feels that the annual war game is an effort to contain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Malabar exercise started in 1992 as a bilateral drill between the Indian Navy and the US Navy in the Indian Ocean. Japan became a permanent participant in the exercise in 2015.

China claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea. But Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have counter claims. In the East China Sea, Beijing has territorial disputes with Japan.

In November, in his video address to the Bengaluru Tech Summit, the Australian Prime Minister said his country plans to take bilateral ties with India to new heights by working together in frontier technologies.

Although Australia and India have come a very long way, there are still many challenges to take the relationship to the next level, go beyond the curry, cricket and the Commonwealth.

According to Australia-India Business Council Victoria President Ravneet Pahwa, despite the coronavirus pandemic, Australia-India relations in 2020 continued to see an upward swing, even though a vast business potential still awaits them.

India is among Australia's top-tier trading partners with two-way trade worth 30 billion Australian dollars (USD 22.8 billion) last year as compared to the two-way trade with China which sits at over 200 billion dollars.

Both the countries have failed to conclude a free trade agreement, first mooted almost a decade ago in 2011.

On the diaspora front, which currently numbers around 700,000, Indians emerged as one of the largest communities making a positive impact in the society with their contributions and services during the trying times.

Over 38,000 Indians became Australian citizens in 2019-2020, a 60 per cent increase. It was the largest diaspora to acquire the citizenship.

Indians have also earned a distinction of being Australia's fastest growing inbound tourists.

Nishant Kashikar, Country Manager - India & Gulf, Tourism Australia said: ''Due to the mutual affinity for cricket shared by both India and Australia, as demonstrated during each tour undertaken by the Indian cricket team, we realised the tremendous opportunity that rested within the sporting event and the India market.''

Cricket as a sport is immensely popular in both the countries and their rivalries on the ground draw huge attention around the world.

The Indian cricket team is currently in Australia as part of the world test championship.


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