Australia, India to up security, maritime ties

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull paying his respects at Raj Ghat, the memorial for Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi yesterday. Mr Turnbull is on his maiden four-day state visit to India.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull paying his respects at Raj Ghat, the memorial for Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi yesterday. Mr Turnbull is on his maiden four-day state visit to India.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

On Turnbull's maiden state visit to India, both sides also agree to speed up slow-moving talks on a free-trade deal

India and Australia have agreed to boost security and maritime cooperation, and speed up slow-moving negotiations on a free-trade pact, after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.

The two countries yesterday signed half a dozen agreements in areas including anti-terror cooperation and civil aviation security, and agreed to continue talks on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.

The pact has been in negotiations for six years, but has been held up over disagreement on issues, including market access for Australian agricultural products and greater access for Indian professionals who want to work in Australia. 

"It is fair to say progress is not as fast as both of us would have liked it to be. We have asked for an early meeting of the negotiators... to identify areas where more work needs to be done,'' Mr Turnbull said yesterday at a media conference alongside Mr Modi. 

Mr Turnbull, who arrived in India on Sunday for his maiden four-day state visit, expressed interest in deepening economic ties between Australia and the world's fastest-growing economy. "Our ties... will be stronger because of this visit," he said.

The two leaders also took a ride on the Delhi Metro, where Mr Turnbull snapped a selfie with Mr Modi 

Bilateral ties are generally good, but Mr Turnbull has focused more on China and South-east Asia since he came to power in 2015.

While trade between India and Australia has doubled over the past decade to around US$20 billion (S$28.1 billion), said Mr Turnbull, this was a fraction of what it could and should be.

On the bright side, Australia has become the second-most popular destination after the United States for Indians studying abroad, with over 60,000 Indian students studying on the continent. 

Australia is also seen to be important for India's diplomacy, as the latter tries to boost its maritime links and presence in the Indo-Pacific region, against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China. 

India is concerned about China's growing naval might and increasing presence in the Indian Ocean. For instance, China has been investing in ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and Chinese submarines had docked in Sri Lanka some years ago. 

Mr Modi yesterday emphasised the need for peace in the Indian Ocean region, noting that India and Australia recognise that their future is deeply tied to peace and stability in the region.

"We, therefore, agree on the need for a secure and rule-based Indo-Pacific,'' said Mr Modi, adding that strong strategic ties between the two countries were "also a major factor for peace, stability and security in our region".  

"The waters of the Indian Ocean remind us of our linked histories... our connected destinies,'' he said.

A joint statement released after the talks said the two leaders "recognised that India and Australia share common interests in ensuring maritime security and the safety of sea lines of communication''.

It added that the duo "welcomed continued and deepened trilateral cooperation and dialogue among Australia, India and Japan".

The three countries, along with the US, were part of the now-defunct Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic grouping started in 2007 to discuss issues of interest, such as defence cooperation. This had raised objections from China and was discontinued when Australia withdrew a year later, following a change in government then.

Experts said Australia remained important for India, particularly in the security and maritime domain.

"There is a lot of complementarity and one common issue binds them - 'How do you deal with China?'," said Delhi-based security affairs expert C. Uday Bhaskar.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline 'Australia, India to up security, maritime ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe