India and Australia agree Quad should focus on Indo-Pacific

Australian PM Scott Morrison (left) and Indian PM Narendra Modi during a virtual leaders summit, on March 21, 2022. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Australia and India - which along with the US and Japan are in the Quadrilateral Security Forum or Quad - have agreed that the grouping's focus should remain on the Indo-Pacific amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

"While we are distressed at the terrible situation in Europe, our focus is of course very much on what is happening in the Indo-Pacific and ensuring those events could never happen in Indo-Pacific," said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in opening remarks at the virtual India-Australia Summit on Monday (March 21).

He noted that the Indo-Pacific had its own challenges but made no direct reference to China.

"Our region is facing increasing change and much pressure," said Mr Morrison, whose remarks appeared to signal accommodation by Australia of India's position on the crisis.

India, which has a longstanding defence relationship with Moscow, has refused to directly blame Russia for invading Ukraine, abstaining from a number of votes at the United Nations against Moscow.

All the other Quad members, as well as many countries around the world, have not only condemned Russia but also rolled out severe sanctions, including against those closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

India has thus far called for an end to the violence, expressing concern about the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

At the same time, New Delhi is hoping to shield its defence collaboration with Moscow from sanctions and is in the process of striking a deal with Russia for oil.

At a press conference after Monday's summit, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that the Australian Prime Minister had "expressed understanding for India's position on the issue".

But Mr Morrison, while accommodative of New Delhi's stance, did not hold back on criticising Russian actions in Ukraine, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi steered clear of any mention of the crisis in opening statements which were made public.

Mr Morrison said: "I think our Quad leaders' call recently gave us the opportunity to discuss Russia's unlawful invasion of Ukraine. But it also gave us the opportunity to discuss the implications and consequences of that terrible event for our own region in the Indo-Pacific and the coercion and issues we face here."

Russia, he added, would have to be held accountable for the tragic loss of life.

The virtual summit between Australia and India followed a two-day visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to New Delhi over the weekend. Ukraine also featured prominently in his talks with Mr Modi.

Mr Kishida, too, reserved strong words for Russia, calling the Ukraine invasion a "very serious issue... shaking the roots of international order".

The Quad grouping has gathered momentum in recent years against the backdrop of mounting concerns about the growing assertiveness of China in the region.

Many observers, like Beijing, view the grouping as an attempt to contain China.

Mr Shringla said that Mr Modi and Mr Morrison discussed China, with the Australian leader offering a "detailed perspective of how he saw China and its actions in the region" and spoke in particular about the South China Sea.

The Indian Foreign Secretary said Mr Modi, on his part, referred to India's border dispute with China and emphasised that "peace and tranquillity" in the area was a prerequisite for normalisation of ties with Beijing.

Ties between India and Australia have deepened in recent years amid greater strategic convergence, with greater cooperation in defence, trade and investment.

The two leaders on Monday agreed to deepen trade and expand cooperation in areas such as critical minerals.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between Khanij Bidesh India and Australia's Critical Minerals Facilitation Office to set up a framework for building partnerships in critical minerals investment.

Both sides also agreed on moves to encourage Australian investments in Indian infrastructure.

The two countries are currently negotiating the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), with Mr Modi saying remarkable progress had been made "in a very short time" on it.

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