Modi, Australian PM to discuss COVID, trade at first virtual bilateral summit

The leaders will look at stepping up investments at Modi's first virtual summit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison | PTI/Reuters Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison | PTI/Reuters

First, it was a bush fire that kept them apart. Then came the virus. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi have finally decided that they would no longer wait to meet for a 'chai pe charcha' with piping hot samosas and mango chutney. They will be meeting over a virtual bilateral summit on Thursday.

This is the first virtual bilateral summit for Modi, though he was one of the early adapters to the concept with his initiative with Saarc leaders on March 15. Morrison himself mentioned Modi's initiative for virtual meets when the heads of G20 nations met for the first ever extraordinary virtual summit to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic on March 26. Australia also had a virtual bilateral summit with Singapore as early as March 23 this year.

Recently, Morrisson tweeted a picture of home-made samosas and mango chutney, and regretted that he would not be able to share such fare with Modi at a virtual summit. In fact, a virtual summit is shorn of all the events that accompany a big visit--the visit to Raj Ghat, a working lunch at Hyderabad House and the banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The only food at this summit will be food for thought. 

Protocols also change when a visit goes virtual. Who is the host and who is the guest? Given that Morrison's visit to New Delhi was twice cancelled, it appears that India will play host. The Ministry of External Affairs has also released a media advisory, as it does for all big visits. The only item on the agenda, however, is an official photo op (of course, virtual) at 11 am.

India's ties with Australia have been slowly, tentatively, but surely improving over the past few years, after the historic low in 1998, when Australia condemned India's nuclear tests. The two scaled their ties to a Strategic Partnership in 2009, but it was Modi's visit to Down Under in 2014 (a prime ministerial visit from India after a gap of 28 years), following a visit from the Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, a few months earlier that gave a new energy to the relationship. 

Three years later, Abbott's successor Malcolm Turnbull visited India. In 2018, there was another set of reciprocal visits. In March 2018, the Governor General of Australia attended the founding summit of the International Solar Alliance in New Delhi and in November, President Ramnath Kovind made the first ever visit by an Indian president to Australia.

Australia's keenness to strengthen ties with India is obvious. In its white paper on foreign policy in 2017, Australia recognised India as the pre-eminent maritime power among Indian Ocean countries and a front rank partner of Australia. Over the last five years, ties have strengthened and expanded, with several pacts. These include the Framework for Security Cooperation, signed in November 2014. 

Australia has laid an action plan on foreign, defence and security policy exchanges and coordination. Several new initiatives and bilateral/trilateral mechanisms such as Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries 2+2 Dialogue, India-Australia-Indonesia Trilateral Dialogue and India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue have also been established.

Australia is supportive of India’s position on cross-border terrorism and on asking Pakistan to take meaningful action against terrorist groups operating from its soil. It co-sponsored the UNSC resolution to declare Azhar Masood a global terrorist. Australia supported India in joining two exclusive nuclear clubs--the Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement--and has supported India's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. 

The NSG membership as well as a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which India is keen on, have Australia's support, but the moves get thwarted by China.

Yet, it is the China factor that looms large over India's reluctance to get too thick with Australia. Despite urging several times, India has not included Australia in Malabar--the naval exercise India has with the US since 1992. Japan, kept away from becoming a permanent member for a long time, joined the exercise as a permanent member in 2015. 

Observers say that India should now cast aside its hesitation and include Australia into the exercise. All four countries are part of the Quad, another grouping that India is tentatively upgrading. September 2019 was a big moment when the Quad members met at the level of foreign ministers in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. 

However, prior to that in 2015, India began its first bilateral naval exercise with Australia, called AUSINDEX. The third iteration of the exercise was held last April. India also has a bilateral army exercise with Australia--AUSTRAHIND--since 2016. They have had four exercises under this banner so far.

Trade and diasporic ties are getting stronger over time, though the balance of trade is badly against India and is another issue in the relationship. The current bilateral trade was worth $20.92 billion (2018-19). India exported goods and services worth $5.17 billion and imported goods and services worth $15.75 billion in 2018-19. 

Australia’s cumulative investment in India is about $10.74 billion, whereas India’s total investment in that country has been worth $10.45 billion. Australian Pension Fund has invested $1 billion in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund. 

Sources say that at the summit, the leaders will look at stepping up trade and investment. Australia's trove of minerals, especially supplies of uranium, are important for India's civil nuclear programme, an effort needed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by easing out fossil fuel use. Will the two leaders make progress towards formalising trade treaties? The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), begun by the two sides in 2011, hasn't made much headway since the last round of talks in 2015. 

India also decided, at the last minute, not to join the trade grouping Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last year. Apart from the ten ASEAN nations, China, Japan and Australia are members of the trade bloc and efforts are still on to get India into the grouping. One of the reasons for India's decision to stay away were differences with Australia over market access over dairy and agriculture products. Economic ties are going to be an important area of discussion with global economies struggling under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, the pandemic, its lessons and way forward are likely to be a major part of the discussions on Thursday. Australia had initiated the move to demand an independent inquiry into the World Health Organisation's response to Covid-19 as well as an independent, impartial and comprehensive probe into the coronavirus crisis. The draft resolution was finally signed by 62 countries and presented at the virtual meet of the World Health Assembly in May. Despite an initial reluctance, India joined the resolution. The draft does not mention either China or Wuhan. Meanwhile, India evacuated 1,560 of its nationals and five OCI card-holders from Australia under the ongoing Vande Bharat mission.

There are likely to be agreements on educational ties, as Australia poses itself to be an education destination. Already, there are over one lakh Indian students studying there. Observers believe that leaders might ink the  Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA), similar to the LEMOA pact with the US, which will facilitate the two militaries from accessing each other's logistic support. The MLSA, like LEMOA, allows the navies to refuel in each other's shores, and access other logistical support.