STATE TIMES NEWS New Delhi: India and Australia on Thursday elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, signed seven key agreements including a landmark pact for reciprocal access to military bases and another on rare earth minerals during an online summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. Against the backdrop of their frosty relations with China, the two countries also 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. Asked at a media briefing whether the origin of the coronavirus pandemic in China’s Wuhan city or the military standoff between Chinese and Indian troops figured in the talks, Secretary (East) in the External Affairs Ministry Vijay Thakur Singh said there was no discussion on China at the summit. There has been strain in ties between Australia and China after Canberra pitched for an international probe into the origin of the coronavirus. In his initial remarks at the first ever bilateral virtual summit with a foreign leader, Modi said India is committed to expanding its relations with Australia in a comprehensive and quick manner, adding: “This is important not only for our two countries but also for the Indo-Pacific region and the world.” Some of the major takeaways at the talks included the decision of the two countries to upgraded 2+2 dialogue featuring their foreign and defence secretaries to the ministerial level, signing of 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. A separate pact providing for cooperation in defence science and technology was also signed. Singh said Modi invited Australian companies to invest in India’s defence manufacturing. Referring to the agreement on mining and minerals, Singh said Australia could become a reliable and secure supplier of critical minerals to India as the two sides have agreed to work in the key sector. 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 other pacts will provide for bilateral cooperation in areas of cyber and cyber-enabled critical technology, vocational education and water resources management. In the talks, the two sides also deliberated on a host of key issues including on the proposed Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), ways to contain terror financing, reform in the World Trade Organisation and ways to deal with the coronavirus crisis. According to a joint statement issued after the Modi-Morrison talks, both sides 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. It said both sides also decided to re-engage on a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) while suitably considering earlier bilateral discussions where a mutually agreed way forward can be found. In the separate declaration on the Indo-Pacific, the two countries vowed to deepen navy-to-navy cooperation, noting that they have a shared interest in promoting maritime security and safety in the region. “India and Australia have common concerns regarding the strategic, security and environmental challenges in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain. These include activities and actions in the maritime domain that are inconsistent with international law,” the declaration said, without making any reference to China. Asked whether Australia’s keen interest to participate in Malabar naval exercise was discussed, the Secretary in MEA said there was no discussion on any individual drill. The joint statement said the two countries recognised that terrorism remains a threat to peace and stability in the region and strongly condemned the menace in all its forms and manifestations, stressing that there can be no justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever. It said both sides support a comprehensive approach in combating terrorism, including by countering violent extremism, preventing radicalisation, disrupting financial support to terrorists and facilitating prosecution of those involved in acts of terror. The two sides also called for early adoption of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). In his opening remarks, Modi also pitched for a coordinated and collaborative approach to come out of the adverse economic and social impact of the epidemic that has infected around 65 lakh people and killed 3.88 lakh globally. He said a process of comprehensive reforms covering almost all areas has been initiated in India as his government viewed the coronavirus crisis as an “opportunity”. “The role of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership will be more important in this period of a global pandemic. The world needs a coordinated and collaborative approach to come out of the economic and social side effects of this pandemic,” the prime minister said. “Our government has decided to view this crisis as an opportunity. In India, a process of comprehensive reforms has been initiated in almost all spheres. It will soon see results at the ground level,” he added. The prime minister said India-Australia relations are wide-ranging and deep and that the depth comes from our shared values, shared interests, shared geography and shared objectives. “I believe that this is the perfect time, the perfect opportunity to further strengthen the relations between India and Australia,” he said. Referring to the virtual summit, the prime minister termed it “a new model of India-Australia partnership, a new model of conducting business”. It was the first time that Modi held a “bilateral” virtual summit with a foreign leader. Modi described his talks with Morrison as “an outstanding discussion”, covering the entire expanse of ties between the two strategic partners. In his remarks, Morrison complemented Modi for his “constructive and very positive” role including at the G-20 role in pushing for a concerted global approach in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. The joint statement said to provide oversight of the comprehensive strategic partnership and to deepen economic and strategic cooperation, India and Australia affirm their desire to increase the frequency of prime ministerial contact through reciprocal bilateral visits and annual meetings in the margins of international events.
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