Australian Prime Minister Antony Albanese and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, have pledged to take relations between their countries to “greater heights”, signing new agreements on migration and green hydrogen, as Canberra seeks to boost trade and diplomatic ties with New Delhi in an effort to counter China.
The signing of the trade deals on Wednesday came hours after Albanese offered Modi a rock star’s welcome in one of Sydney’s biggest sporting arenas while sidestepping questions from the media about the Indian leader’s human rights record, including allegations of crackdowns on dissidents and the country’s minority Muslim community.
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Albanese told reporters at Sydney’s Admiralty House that he was “absolutely delighted” to welcome Modi to Australia.
He noted that the two leaders have met six times since his election as Australia’s prime minister last year.
Australia and India are members of the Quad group of nations, which also includes Japan and the United States.
Modi is the only leader of the Quad nations to continue with his scheduled visit to Australia after US President Joe Biden pulled out of a planned meeting of the group in Sydney to return to Washington to focus on debt limit talks. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who hosted a Group of Seven summit last week, also cancelled his Australia trip.
“Quad leaders stand together for an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region … where all countries large and small benefit from a regional balance that keeps the peace,” Albanese told reporters after bilateral talks with Modi.
During their summit, the two leaders discussed trade, defence and renewable energy, and signed an agreement to establish a hydrogen task force and expand cooperation on clean energy. They also signed a deal on migration that will allow the exchange of students, researchers and business people, while boosting efforts to prevent human smuggling, according to Albanese.
For his part, Modi – a nationalist leader who faces re-election next year – hailed “constructive discussions” with Albanese, and said the pair had “talked about taking Australia-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to greater heights over the next decade”.
“In the language of cricket, our ties have entered the T20 mode.”
They also discussed increasing cooperation on mining and critical minerals, Modi said, and are seeking to complete negotiations on a free trade deal before the end of the year. The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement would increase the scope of a bilateral trade pact that came into force in December last year.
Australia, whose largest trading partner is China, is seeking to diversify its export markets, including forging closer trade ties with India. India is Australia’s sixth largest trading partner, with the two-way exchange of goods and services valued at 46.5 billion Australian dollars ($31bn) last year.
Albanese and Modi, who is known for never addressing a news conference, did not take any questions.
As the talks progressed, several protesters gathered in front of the Admiralty House, carrying signs denouncing “Modi’s crimes against innocents” and alleged “insults and violence”, according to footage broadcast by Sky News Australia.
The dozen or so protesters were outnumbered by the security personnel at the scene.
Before his meeting with Modi, Albanese was asked if he would stand up to the Indian leader over allegations of rights abuses. But he avoided the question.
“India is the world’s largest democracy. Here in Australia, of course people have a right to express their views in a peaceful way and we all have different views about people in politics,” he told the Channel 7 broadcaster.
“It’s not up to me to pass a comment on some of the internal politics” of India, he insisted.
Modi, however, appeared to have no such qualms.
The Indian leader on Wednesday hit out at recent “attacks” on Hindu temples in Australia – vandalism allegedly committed by Sikh separatists – and added that Albanese had assured him of “strict actions against such elements in the future”.
The night before, Albanese had hosted a mass rally for Modi at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney Olympic Park.
To chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!” Albanese introduced his “dear friend” to a crowd of Indian-Australians and praised him for making Australia “stronger and more inclusive”.
“The last time I saw someone on the stage here was Bruce Springsteen and he didn’t get the welcome that Prime Minister Modi has got,” Albanese said, referring to the popular American rock star.
“Prime Minister Modi is the boss!” he added.
Some 20,000 people attended the rally, according to Australian media.
Indian-Australians make up the country’s fastest-growing and second-largest diaspora, with 673,000 Indian-born citizens in a population of 26 million. Almost 90,000 Indian students are enrolled at Australian universities, the largest overseas contingent after China.
Albanese’s warm embrace of Modi has drawn condemnation from others, however.
“We are deeply concerned about his visit, and the manner in which he has been welcomed without any of the issues of concern in his own country being raised,” Bilal Rauf, spokesperson for the Australian National Imams Council, told the AFP news agency.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, said: “The Australian government should not repeat the same mistakes it made with the Chinese government by pursuing deeper trade engagement while sidelining human rights concerns.”
The rights group said that under Modi, “the world’s largest democracy” has become much less free and more dangerous, with dozens of journalists, activists and opposition leaders jailed and violence “effectively normalised” against minority Muslim and Christian communities.
“Using ‘quiet diplomacy’ has had no evident impact on the human rights situation,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Asia director. It “has led to growing sentiment that Australia is willing to overlook the plight of affected communities in India to win over India as an ally against China and Russia”.