The first virtual meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison is set to take place at 11 am on Thursday. This is the first time that PM Modi will be holding a “Bilateral Virtual Summit”.

The two leaders will discuss bilateral, regional and global issues, including the novel coronavirus pandemic. A major thrust is expected on a greater projection for the Indo-Pacific at the backdrop of an ever aggressive China that has been cornered due to Covid-19.

“As the two democratic nations, India and Australia have developed an understanding of each other’s perspectives on regional and global issues. We have a shared approach to a free, open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific”, a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs said.

During the virtual summit, the two sides are also expected to discuss the challenge of repatriating their citizens from each others’ countries.

There is a 700,000 strong Indian diaspora and around 1,06,000 students studying in Australia.

“Under the Mission Vande Bharat, 1,560 Indian nationals and five OCI cardholders were evacuated from Australia in seven flights in the second phase of VBM in May 2020. Total Australians evacuated from India by these flights: were 1096. [03 flights from Sydney to Delhi, Amritsar and Ahmedabad; 04 flights from Melbourne to Amritsar, Bengaluru, Kochi and Hyderabad]”, said sources.

Ahead of the India-Australia virtual summit, Australian envoy Barry O’Farrell said: “Both are committed to free and prosperous Indo-Pacific. It is crucial for like-minded democracies to work together. Especially, during the coronavirus pandemic, it is important not just to save lives but also livelihoods.”

The economic engagement has been growing between the two nations.

In 2018-19, the trade between the two countries was around US$ 21 billion.

Australia’s cumulative investment in India is about US$ 10.74 billion, whereas India’s total investment in Australia is US$ 10.45 billion.

“Australian Super Pension Fund has invested US$ 1 billion in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund. The two countries are looking at stepping up investments and trade with each other,” a statement by the MEA said.

On the strategic front, the two nations upgraded the relationship to ‘Strategic Partnership’ in 2009.

Sources said, “Due to better understanding of India’s strength and future role, Australia, in its White Paper on Foreign Policy -2017, recognised India as the “pre-eminent maritime power among Indian Ocean countries” and a “front-rank partner of Australia.”

During the last five years, bilateral relations between both countries have strengthened and expanded tremendously.”

However, because of China, Australia continued to face obstacles in fully integrating itself with the QUAD. For example, Australia is yet to participate in the Malabar exercises that are held among naval forces of India, US and Japan.

To a question on Australia’s participation, Barry O’Farrell said: ” If invited, of course, we will come. We would like to participate in Malabar.”

India and Australia signed the Framework for Security Cooperation in November 2014 which laid an action plan for initiatives and bilateral/trilateral mechanisms such as Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries 2+ 2 Dialogue, India-Australia-Indonesia Trilateral Dialogue, India-Australia-Japan Trilateral Dialogue have been established since then.

“These new platforms have provided greater momentum to strengthen our strategic cooperation”, said sources.

India and Australia commenced their first bilateral naval exercise ‘AUSINDEX’ in 2015 that focussed at deepening defence and maritime cooperation, especially in the Indian Ocean.

The third iteration of AUSINDEX – 2019 was held in the Bay of Bengal in April 2019.

AUSTRAHIND, bilateral Army exercises conducted between two countries, also started in 2016.

The fourth iteration of AUSTRAHIND was held in September 2019 in Australia. There are regular staff-to-staff talks between the three wings of the Armed forces.

When asked if the two sides would be signing the logistics agreement, Barry O’Farrell said, “We cannot pre-empt what the two PM’s are going to do, in terms of what is expected to come out of the summit. The logistics pact will make it easier for the armed forces of the two countries to carry out complex exercises like AusIndex.”

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