India and Australia held their first ever virtual bilateral Summit in the midst of lockdowns and travel bans imposed worldwide due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The Summit came in place of two actual visits that were to take place in January 2020 and in May 2020 to further strengthen the bilateral ties. As the pandemic has placed restrictions on physical movement, the Summit was held through the virtual mode between the leaders.
The core focus of the Summit was the enhancement of bilateral ties between the two countries to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. During the Summit both countries signed nine agreements that cover a range of economic and security ties. At the economic level the two countries have robust trade relations with the two way trade amounting to nearly US $ 30 billion. As India has deepened its economic integration across the Indo-Pacific, Australia is now India’s eighth largest trading partner.
On the issue of addressing the challenges from COVID 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the need for a `coordinated and collaborative’ approach to dealing with the pandemic. Addressing the possibility of collaborative efforts in the areas of healthcare research, both countries looked at building opportunities for sharing medical developments and investigations to address future health hazards. The joint statement following the summit clearly indicates the relevance of global cooperation to address the crisis and its economic fallout.
At the security level, the Summit finalized a crucial agreement, the Mutual Logisitics Support Agreement (MLSA) between the two countries. Aimed at enhancing military inter-operability the MLSA addresses core convergences between the countries at the security level. The mutual agreement provides access to each other’s military bases for logistics support. This is crucial to the security calculations in the Indo-Pacific, which highlights the meeting ground for the two countries. India and Australia are clearly looking to enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific through a multidimensional approach by fostering security ties at the bilateral and the multilateral levels.
While the current summit addresses the bilateral, the two countries are already part of several multilateral processes such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) as well as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Within the IORA the trilateral dialogue on the Indian Ocean (TDIO) with Indonesia, as well as the Australia-India-Japan trilateral critically increase the leverage for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly the Quadrilateral dialogue (Quad) is also aimed at the addressing convergences in the Indo-Pacific.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s statement following the Summit clearly emphasizes the core values tying these two countries together. He focused on the importance of a `new level of cooperation’ highlighting the core objectives of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Emphasizing that the two countries had built their ties on the `basis of mutual understanding, trust and common interests’ directly hinted at the convergence of shared values of democracy and the rule of law. This is a critical area of the bilateral ties, as it seeks to reassert the importance of the normative order that is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific region.
Both India and Australia have recently faced tensions in their ties with China – for India, the border standoff in the regions of Ladakh have led to strains in her bilateral ties with China. Similarly for Australia, there have been heightened tensions with China in the aftermath of Australia supporting the need for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. This elicited strong reactions from China with implications on the levels of economic integration and trade between the two countries. Bilateral relations between Australia and China hit its lowest when Chinese state media referred very uncharitably towards Australia. In the background of these events, the enhancement of bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is critical for both India and Australia.
Script: Prof. Shankari Sundararaman, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, JNU.