India-Japan-Australia forum not anti-China: Peter Varghese

India, Japan and Australia discussed concerns over Chinese reclamation in the South China Sea, and hoped a “code of conduct” would be agreed to between China and the ASEAN countries to calm tensions in the region.

Speaking to The Hindu , Australia’s top diplomat Peter Varghese, in Delhi for the first India-Japan-Australia high-level trilateral talks, said: “It’s the pace and the scale of China’s reclamation which is causing some anxiety in the region.”

At the recently concluded Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, Defence officials from across the world sparred over the issue, as U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter accused China of amassing 2,000 acres in the seas, “more than ever in history” and of causing “regional tensions” by its actions.

While India has made no comment so far on the reclamation, the government has voiced concerns several times on what it sees as China’s restrictions on freedom of movement.

Mr. Varghese denied that the trilateral meeting in Delhi at this time could be considered an “anti-China front,” saying, “This is not a meeting directed at anyone. We are three countries with a lot to do bilaterally, and we see benefit in cooperation.”

India and Australia also kicked off discussions on their first bilateral naval exercises on Monday in Perth.

Mr. Varghese will meet NSA Ajit Doval in Delhi on Tuesday, and as Australia’s key trade and economic negotiator is expected to hold several meetings in Delhi at Commerce Ministry and DIPP.

Investment climate

Mr. Varghese said despite a change in the business environment in the past year, the Modi government has been unable to clear several roadblocks to investment as yet.

“We are certainly finding a more responsive and sympathetic attitude from the government in the past year, and Mr. Modi’s emphasis on getting things done is registering with the bureaucracy. But that said, we haven’t managed to remove the obstacles yet,” Mr. Varghese said, listing regulatory hurdles, State and Centre clearances and the Land Acquisition Act delays as the biggest obstacles.

In particular, Mr. Varghese expressed concern over the legal hurdles for Australian mining giant Rio Tinto after the Odisha government decided to scrap a joint venture with it, putting its plans for iron-ore projects in jeopardy. “In Odisha, both the Centre and State are yet to give clearances,” Mr. Varghese said.

“The regulatory burden is seen by companies in Australia as excessive, and also the interpretation varies, so what we are looking for is certainty and simplicity.”

However, he refused to comment on whether Gujarat-based Adani group would be able to clear legal hurdles against its Australian $12.7 billion coal-mine project in Queensland, where a court is hearing cases filed by environmental groups and aboriginal activists.

“When it comes to litigation that is in the hands of the courts, and not much the government can do,” Mr. Varghese explained, claiming all government clearances had been granted to the Adani group.

The Australian Foreign Secretary sounded more hopeful on clearing the impasse over the India-Australia nuclear deal, where administrative arrangements have been held up over differences on fuel-tracking that was announced by Prime Ministers Modi and Abbott in August 2014.

While India insists on IAEA-inspections only, the Australian government is legally obliged to track all Australian-origin nuclear material (AONM).

Mr. Varghese said he was confident on resolving the issues, including parliamentary opposition to the deal in Australia “very soon.”

“In our discussions both sides have been pretty creative in a way that we can meet our framework consistent with India’s position…So we will square the circle,” Mr. Varghese told The Hindu .