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NEW DELHI : A virtual summit between the leaders of India and Australia this week is to place ties at a “historical high point," Australian high commissioner to India, Barry O’ Farrell said Monday with both sides looking to boost bilateral cooperation in defence, the Indo-Pacific, education and critical mineral supply chains.

This will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first virtual summit with the leader of another country at the bilateral level while Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has held at one virtual bilateral summit previously -- with Singapore in March.

India-Australia ties have been on an upswing since 2012, when the Australian government decided to sell uranium to India despite India not being a signatory to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Three Australian prime ministers -- Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull -- have visited India since then.

A clear takeaway from Thursday’s summit will be the logistics support pact, giving a “step up" to the bilateral defence cooperation, making it easier for the militaries of the two countries to conduct complex exercises. It will also facilitate access to each other’s bases. “It’s the sort of relationship that we have with many of our strongest allies and I think its again a further demonstration of the strength and depth of the defence relationship between the two countries," O’ Farrell told reporters.

Besides this, the two leaders are expected to share perspectives on a more “secure," “open," “inclusive" and “prosperous" Indo-Pacific, making the Indian and Australian economies more resilient, and strengthening international institutions, O’ Farrell, a former Premier of New South Wales, who presented his credentials last month, said.

That the two sides see defence as a key pillar of the bilateral engagement is clear from the fact that there has been a major upscaling of military exchanges. The countries conduct bilateral exercises and Australia is looking to join the US, Japan and India in the Malabar series of naval exercises. India and Australia have defence and foreign secretary level talks between them and trilateral discussions at the foreign ministry level with Japan, US and Indonesia. The two countries are also part of the “Quadrilateral" comprising of India, Australia, Japan and the US.

The Modi-Morrison meet is taking place against the backdrop of tensions between China and India on their common border as well as China and Australia. The latter is due to Australia seeking an impartial enquiry into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes covid-19, angering Beijing given that it supports a US demand. In consequence, China has threatened a range of economic sanctions including 80% tariffs on Australian barley exports. News reports said Australia was looking at India as a possible destination for barley exports in the backdrop of tensions with Beijing.

Interestingly, China’s state-backed Global Times in an article on Sunday warned India of economic consequences if New Delhi thought of taking advantage of the US-China frictions that have been on the rise over a range of issues, including the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

When asked about the Australian view on the India-China border tensions, O’Farrell said that this was for India and China to resolve. But O’ Farrell said Australia had an interest to see that tensions were reduced in the South China Sea where China has been making some aggressive moves including the sinking of a Vietnamese ship, which he said, “could potentially escalate" matters. He said India and Australia were keen to see reforms in international institutions that could serve the interests of all countries. “It is as crucial as ever for like minded democracies and important partners like India and Australia to work together to shape the type of region and the type of world we want to live in presently and post covid-19," he said.

On the economic front, O’Farrell said energy, education, advance manufacturing and water were areas of cooperation. Australian pension funds may have exited Indian markets in the wake of the covid-19 crises but with the world slowly beginning to refocus on jobs and livelihoods, things were expected to change for the better. A key area of interest is the supply of critical minerals with O’Farrell saying that “ we have elements and resources that can strengthen and make more resilient the supply chains here in India."

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