Despite comments from the US on India’s position on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, is amongst Quad members “somewhat shaky”, the Australian Envoy says there is an understanding of India’s unique challenges including its historic relations with Russia and land border issues with China. Speaking to The Hindu about the India-Australia virtual summit held on March 21, Australian High Commissioner Barry O’ Farrell also said that the differences over sanctions against Russia will not hold back the India-Australia trade agreement, for which the Phase 1 will be announced in a matter of “days”.
What will the latest announcement of annual summits between Indian and Australian Prime Ministers mean for bilateral ties?
I think it’s a continuing convergence of interests that’s leading to greater cooperation between the two countries. So whether it’s the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, or whether it’s the agreements that we inked at the Annual Leaders Meeting, none of it is symbolism..all of it is is practical, strategically aligned, economically focused cooperation designed to strengthen both economies and to equip them to undertake what Prime Minister Modi said in the summer of 2020 was a :sacred duty to shape the Indo-Pacific, post-Covid”.
A day before the summit, you said that the Quad understands India’s position on Ukraine, but a day later, the US president actually said that amidst the quad, India is the exception on actions against Russia... and “somewhat shaky”. So my question again, is there a division within the quad?
Well [US Indo-Pacific Coordinator] Kurt Campbell said something else. The point is that commentators here are making something about this issue, even though the Quad ministers meeting in Melbourne noted that every country has stated their position on Ukraine and moved on to more immediate practical work in our region. So, rhetoric is one thing... practical action is another, and there is nothing in the India, Australia, Japan, US relationship in regards to Ukraine that stopped the Quad meeting, focusing on implications of that for the Indo Pacific. But more importantly, focusing on the immediate challenges we face in the Pacific.
Actually, at the Melbourne meeting of Quad Ministers, we saw clear divisions between Mr. Jaishankar and the other ministers, and at the virtual quad Summit, every one of the readouts had a different take, it seemed as if Ukraine was much more a part of everyone’s readout except for India’s. At the bilateral summit too Prime Minister Morrison referred very directly to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, Prime Minister Modi did not refer to the Ukraine in his statement, the joint statement makes no mention of Russia....So is there really no division?
No, no division between India and Australia on it. And my Prime Minister made that clear in his discussions with Prime Minister Modi, so it’s not an issue for us, because I do think that countries around the world understand India’s historic relationship with Russia. At the summit both leaders committed themselves to urgently work on resolving the conflict. As PM Modi tried to do, in three phone calls to [Russian President] Putin and two phone calls to [Ukraine President] Zelenskyy.
India is also now considering the purchase of more oil from Russia and reviving a Rupee-Rouble trade system to bypass sanctions, the sanctions regime that Australia is a part of....
Well, I think the other thing that’s needs to be addressed here and certainly was addressed at the Quad, which is there is another player in all this, that, that is an existential issue for a country like India, that has a land border with a Northern neighbour. Whereas for Australia, notwithstanding the fact that that same northern neighbour is active across the Indo Pacific, we don’t share a specific land border with it. So I think, you know, to be fair to India, it has an historic relationship with one country, but it’s clearly stating what the rest of the world is stating, which is, we all want an end of the conflict in Ukraine. But India has that extra issue, which relates to, the challenges made by the country to its northern borders, which it is trying to work through. The thing that unites us all, is none of us believe that there should be a change to the status quo, whether it’s India’s borders, whether it’s Ukraine’s borders, whether it’s the borders of any other countries around the world, and we certainly don’t believe that any of those actions should be taken in contravention of the rules and norms set by multilateral institutions, like the United Nations and others that have governed us for so long.
You mentioned the neighbour to the north, that is China. Three days after various parts of the Quad met Indian counterparts, we saw the Chinese foreign minister visiting Delhi, was that something that was discussed with Quad partners?
Well, I wasn’t in those meetings and I certainly wasn’t briefed about it beforehand, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Even during COVID times, Delhi has seen people come and go regularly. Also, speaking hypothetically, if I was the leader of a country that that had a border dispute with another country, I’d be seeking to resolve it too. And I’m not suggesting that this is what the meetings, the [Wang] visit is about, but some of that clearly is about keeping lines of communication open. And that’s the nature of diplomacy as I understand it.
Does the fact that Australia is part of the sanctions regime and India is not,affect negotiations over the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA)?
Look, I would say it again, we all have different relationships, in our own interests. The economic cooperation agreement will stand or fall on the interests of both India and Australia. The reason we’re back at the table and CECA talks are progressing, and the reason I’m optimistic about it reaching a conclusion is that it suits both economies. It suits India to take things like critical minerals, coal, to produce steel, so as to assist India grow its economy. And it suits Australia, of course, to sell those products, because that benefits us. And by doing so, ultimately, it’s a strong economy that delivers our citizens better living standards. But as I said before, it also equips us with the capacity to provide that direction to the Indo Pacific, so that it is free, it’s open, and it’s hopefully, resilient.
The momentum mirrors what we saw at the end of 2014, and through 2015, between the two countries. And yet, despite having a deadline, they didn’t actually make much progress. Are you quite confident that this time CECA will be ready this year?
I remain confident that the first phase is on track to be signed at the earliest opportunity. And I think that it’s still as a matter of days rather than months. I don’t think we’ve seen this effort put in by two ministers from the two countries in previous attempts, as has been here, ministers Goyal and Teahan have been talking almost weekly, for the last three months, making sure that those trade negotiator talks are staying on track. And if and when issues arise that require more attention, then those issues get quick attention.
And yet, the Phase 1 or early harvest agreement has already missed a deadline- we were told in February that it would be signed in March....
I didn’t know where the February deadline came from. Actually, we were hoping to have it signed by the end of last year. And that was missed but I think to be fair, the third wave of COVID that we all had to deal with, took a bit out of our capacity to deliver it. I remain confident of the political will, restated by both our Prime Ministers to have it delivered.
Give us a sense of where the sticking point is, if it’s just a matter of days- do differences remain over wine, or dairy products, or...?
I’ll leave the details to Ministers Goyal, and Teahan to outline when they, as I’m sure they will, in the next few days....
And the fact that India may be part of a non-dollar non-SWIFT economic arrangement with Russia...while Australia is part of a sanctions regime against Russia, will not affect this?
I don’t believe those issues will get in the way of completing the CECA agreement. Every country is always going to make up their own minds on these issues, according to their national interest. We did the same thing when it came to opting for nuclear powered submarines and the AUKUS agreement. We made a decision in our national interest. It wasn’t welcomed by another country [France]. Just as I say and believe Australia understands India’s position with Russia, and that’s not getting in the way of Quad activities. It’s not getting in the way of a successful bilateral summit where we’ve further elevated the relationship. I don’t think that the India Russia relationship is going to do long term damage to India’s place in the world.