India and Australia strengthen military ties while tensions decrease in the South China Sea

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Why it matters who owns the seas

The agreements were announced after a virtual summit between Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Narendra Modi of India.

“India is fully and rapidly engaged in strengthening its relations with Australia. This is not only important for our two nations, but also for the Indo-Pacific region and the whole world,” said Modi.

“We are committed to an open, inclusive, prosperous Indo-Pacific and India’s role in that region, our region, will be crucial in the years to come,” added Morrison.

The new pacts, known as the Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and the Defense Science and Technology Implementation Agreement, come as military tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific region, which includes the South China Sea, where China has strengthened its positions on the disputed islands.

A joint post-summit declaration states that both countries “share the vision of a free, open, inclusive and rule-based Indo-Pacific region to support freedom of navigation, overtaking and peaceful and cooperative use of the seas”.

The agreements commit the two countries to deepen military integration through more complex exercises and grant them mutual access to the bases for logistical support.

South China Sea

China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, despite other applicants having borders much closer to the disputed waters. In 2016, a Hague court ruled that China has no legal basis for claiming historical rights over most of the South China Sea.

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Australia has longstanding security ties with the United States and has maintained a long standing presence in the South China Sea, conducting air surveillance patrols since 1980, according to the Lowy Institute.

Australian warships also regularly visit the area, including participating in exercises with U.S. warships in April.

Last year, Indian warships joined US, Japanese and Philippine military ships in a transit through the South China Sea.

India, meanwhile, has increased its defense cooperation with the United States, including with the annual naval exercises of Malabar, which bring together the US and Indian armed forces together with the Japanese self-defense forces.

Australian high commissioner in India, Barry O’Farrell, said in an interview last month that Canberra would be thrilled to join the Malabar exercises, but no invitations have been extended.

Thursday’s signing came as tensions continued to rise on the India-China border in the Himalaya mountains.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said Tuesday that a “significant number” of Chinese troops had moved to the actual control line separating the two countries.

Last month, an aggressive cross-border skirmish between Chinese and Indian forces caused minor injuries to the troops. The incident has been followed in the past few weeks by unconfirmed reports of tensions in the mountainous area, although neither party has publicly acknowledged anything extraordinary.

Angus Watson, Rishabh Madhavendra and CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed to this report.

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