India reinforces ties with Australia amid tensions with China

'In a time like this, we want to deal very much with friends and trusted partners,' says Australian premier Scott Morrison

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a virtual meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in New Delhi, India, June 4, 2020. — Press Information Bureau

NEW DELHI: Amid heightened tensions with China, India and Australia strengthened defence ties Thursday, including sealing a pact to boost military logistics support and maritime cooperation.

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".

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.

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."