India, Australia strengthen security ties on Thursday, including sealing a pact to boost military logistics support and maritime cooperation, as both nations experience heightened tensions with regional superpower China. China has been increasingly projecting beyond its borders, a move which has irked Western nations and neighbouring India.
In a virtual summit held online as the coronavirus pandemic restricts international travel, the two leaders signed a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement as they hailed an upgrade of their strategic partnership.
“India is committed to further intensifying comprehensive relations with Australia,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in opening remarks.
“This is important not only for our two nations, but is also needed for the Indo-Pacific region as well as for the world.”
His Australian counterpart Scott Morrison added that “in a time like this, we want to deal very much with friends and trusted partners”.
India, Australia security ties in focus in inaugural meeting
The foreign and defence ministers will now meet at least biannually to discuss strategic issues, the two nations said in a joint statement.
Other agreements on education, mining, and defence science and technology were also inked during the summit, which took place after two earlier scheduled visits by Morrison to India were postponed because of the Australian bushfires and the pandemic.
Canberra has been at loggerheads with Beijing after Chinese anger over Australia’s push to probe the origins of the coronavirus.
Tensions have flared in recent weeks between India and China over their 3,500-kilometre (2,200-mile) frontier which has never been properly demarcated, with both sides said to have moved in hundreds of extra troops.
A senior Indian foreign ministry official told reporters in a media briefing later Thursday that “there was no discussion on China” in the summit.
India and Australia security ties: Is China the common denominator?
But analysts said Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region, as well as ongoing US-China tensions, was pushing India and Australia closer together to mitigate some of that risk.
“I didn’t expect these two would mention the ‘C’ word, China, but it was very much at the back of their minds,” Asian Studies Adjunct Professor Purnendra Jain of the University of Adelaide told AFP.
“Both the prime ministers are very much aware that these are turbulent times, and to deal with these times, we need to do something together. This is about coronavirus and free trade, but this is also very much about dealing with China.”
The talks are also expected to strengthen a quadrilateral partnership that includes Japan and the U.S. and is seen by analysts as part of efforts to contain China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Indian tensions with China
Border tensions between the two countries have existed for over seven decades. The two countries even fought a war over the hilly state of Arunachal Pradesh in 1962, called the Sino-Indian War.
In 2017, both the armies were locked in a 73-day stand-off in the disputed Doklam plateau near Sikkim, regarding the building of a road by the Chinese. As part of Operation Juniper, about 270 Indian troops armed with weapons and two bulldozers crossed the Sikkim border into Doklam to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road.
The stand-off had ended with the withdrawal of troops by both armies.
Several Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in a high-altitude cross-border clash involving fistfights and stone-throwing at a remote but strategically important mountain pass at Ladakh near Tibet in May.
Read more: Ladakh: India-China troops face off again
There have been numerous face-offs and brawls between Chinese and Indian soldiers, including one near the northwest Indian region of Ladakh captured on video in 2017, where troops were seen throwing punches and stones.
In 2017, there was a high-altitude standoff in Bhutan’s Doklam region for two months after the Indian army sent troops to stop China from constructing a road there.
More recently, an Indian patrol party of the Indo-Tibetan border police (ITBP) were detained and later released by Chinese forces after a scuffle broke out between the Indian and Chinese border troops in Ladakh in May.
Australia’s slowly unravelling tensions with China
Tensions between Beijing and Canberra have spiked in recent months over Australia’s decision to exclude Chinese telecom giant Huawei from the rollout of the country’s 5G network, disputes over the South China Sea, Beijing’s interference in Australian politics and businesses, and Australia’s harboring of a self-described former Chinese spy.
China claims the proposed COVID-19 inquiry is a political witch-hunt orchestrated by Washington and backed by Canberra, with the aim of isolating and humiliating Beijing.
Downer, the former Australian foreign minister, dismissed Beijing’s comments, telling the ABC that there must be an impartial investigation into the cause of the outbreak.
“The global economy has been brought to a halt; 200,000 people are dead as a result of it,” he said. “We’ve got to investigate it. I’m very surprised that the Chinese should be so resistant to getting to the heart of what happened.”
The Chinese embassy in Canberra released a statement that said Cheng was dismissive of Australia’s concerns.
“Ambassador Cheng flatly rejected the concerns expressed from the Australian side over his remarks during the recent interview, and called on Australia to put aside ideological bias, stop political games and do more to promote bilateral relations,” the spokesperson said.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk