India participated in its first bilateral summit last Thursday with its strategic partner Australia which led to alleviation of friendly equations in the Indo-Pacific region. Both nations who share strong political, economic and community ties have maintained their strategic partnership since 2009. Australia, a similar secular multicultural democracy with Westminster-style of political arrangements is home to around a hundred thousand Indian students. “The Land Down Under” sees India in the front rank of international partnerships according to its foreign policy blueprint released in November 2007.
Over the recent months, South Block has turned the limitations posed by the “Great Lockdown” into an opportunity to engage in diplomacy online. It is not entirely surprising for the fact that it is just following the lead of other professions in the world. In this context, prominent foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan in a column of The Indian Express was of the opinion that diplomacy is another profession which requires facetime for both formal and informal work. He further added that diplomats also work in less formal settings where they assess the political mood in the host capital over drinks and dinner with local leaders. In regard to virtual diplomacy, New Delhi was one of the leads to explore this approach with getting the South Asian leaders to meet through video for possible cooperation in fighting against the COVID 19 crisis. Since then video meetings of geopolitical significance include those of G-20, EU, NATO and NAM.
A bilateral summit with Australia was long due as Australian Prime Minister Morisson could not visit India in January 2020 because of severe bushfires in the country. India’s first virtual bilateral summit with Australia witnessed a new diplomatic idiom with ‘samosa’ being at the centre stage. A week prior to the summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison put out photos on social media of the vegetarian ‘ScoMosas’ made by him over the weekend ahead of a video ‘charcha’ with his Indian counterpart. PM Modi took the conversation ahead with the response that the two nations are “connected by the Indian Ocean, united by the Indian samosa” and that he looked forward to eating them with Morrison after “a decisive victory against Covid-19”.
Why is an India-Australia summit imperative at the moment?
The bilateral summit between both the Prime Ministers of India and Australia is crucial not only for being India’s first bilateral summit. It is imperative as it takes place at a time when both countries find themselves at a position threatened by China. India’s cordial relations with China in the last couple of years is at a critical juncture with China’s ongoing aggression in Ladakh. On the other hand, Australia is imposed with sanctions on beef and barley exports as a response against Canberra’s position of demanding an independent inquiry into the source of the novel coronavirus. Navdeep Suri, a former diplomat in his opinion at The Print (4th June 2020) has expressed that China’s influence on operations in Australia have made the latter feel that its institutions and its values are under a coordinated and relentless attack. The former diplomat further cites the reports of Chinese community leaders mobilising to garner support for Beijing’s position on the South China Sea; and clashes between Chinese students and others over developments in Hong Kong, cybersecurity attacks which have targeted Australian research institutions and parliament.
‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’-an upgrade of ties
The summit ended with both the nations upgrading their relationship to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and signed nine agreements including the long-pending Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and issued a joint declaration on a “Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”. Prime Minister Modi in his opening remarks in context to COVID 19 expressed- “The world needs a coordinated and collaborative approach to come out of the economic and social side effects of this pandemic. Our government has decided to view this crisis as an opportunity,”. The two countries were of the mutual agreement to increase consistency of meetings between the two Prime Ministers. The summit also witnessed both the countries vowing to take the “2+2” format of bilateral meetings to the level of Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers who will meet to “discuss strategic issues” at least every two years. India has signed ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) with the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates while Australia has CSPs with China, Indonesia and Vietnam. Other agreements include in the area of cyber technology, an MoU on mining and processing etc.
As mentioned above the summit is critical at the moment amidst pressure between India and China over the LAC while China and Australia over trade issues and tensions in the difference of approach in COVID 19 pandemic. However, there was no discussion of China in the summit between both the leaders. It is important to note that national and international media has observed the Prime Minister’s statement on the commitment of both countries for “sacred responsibility” of upholding and respecting “democracy, rule of law, freedom, mutual respect and respect for international institutions” to be in relation to the common threat from China.
‘‘India critical for Australia in Indo-Pacific’’
The Australian Prime Minister referred to India’s relation as “comfortable” and “natural” as both shared the same “values” as “vibrant and liberal democracies”. Mr Morrison further added that India’s role in the Indo- Pacific region will be critical in the years ahead with “broader” and “deeper’’ relations with Australia. He also reminded of the historicity of naval, defence and maritime cooperation between both the nations since ‘AUSINDEX’, the naval exercise carried in 2015.
India-Australia relations are indeed very critical in the Indo-Pacific region. Both the nations connected with the Indian Ocean must have a shared vision in the world order. The historic Modi-Morrison virtual summit is a positive approach of both the global players in shaping the future of the region.
About the Author: Abhinav Sankar Goswami is an undergraduate student of social science in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus. He is associated with Entrepreneurial Terrain, a consulting agency based in Guwahati. His interest areas are Global Governance, Foreign Relations, Political Economy, Ethnocultural Practices and Sustainable Livelihood.
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