SYDNEY (AFP): Australia said Tuesday it wants to take relations with India to “the next level” as it hosts Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a trade-focused visit with little attention to his government’s treatment of minorities.
With the lure of growing trade riches and a powerful partner to parry China’s expanding military, diplomatic and economic influence in the Pacific region, Australia’s government is layering on the charm.
Modi will address a rally of 18,000 supporters in Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena in the evening — and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will make an appearance in support of the Hindu nationalist leader.
Australia and India have a great “strategic alignment”, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said.
“It really does afford the opportunity to take the relationship to the next level,” he told the national broadcaster ABC, echoing Modi’s own words before his arrival Monday on his first Australian visit since 2014.
Asked whether Australia would raise India’s treatment of Muslims and other minorities, Marles declined to go into detail about a planned Modi-Albanese summit in Sydney on Wednesday.
“Ultimately, we are both democracies and that very much underpins the way in which we see the world,” Marles said, pointing to the two nations’ growing trade and tightening defence relationships.
India is a “growing massive economy, there are great opportunities for us,” he said.
– ‘Blatant’ targeting of minorities –
By contrast, the US State Department earlier this month urged India to condemn religious violence, releasing a report that listed attacks against minorities, including Muslims and Christians in the world’s most populous nation.
Rights groups say India’s 200 million Muslims have faced increased discrimination and violence since Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP swept to power in 2014.
On his visit to Australia, Modi will be tapping into the country’s fastest-growing and second-largest diaspora, with 673,000 Indian-born citizens living in the country of 26 million.
But there are “large pockets” within the Indian community who oppose Modi’s treatment of minorities, said Bilal Rauf, spokesperson for the Australian National Imams Council.
“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,” Rauf told AFP.
“Those issues of concern relate to the very blatant and overt measures taken against minority groups, Muslims in particular, and people in Kashmir.”
“We’re hopeful that our leaders will raise it as an issue.”
– ‘Euphoria’ –
Both countries want an expansion in two-way trade, valued at Aus$46.5 billion (US$31 billion) last year and set to rise after a free-trade deal came into effect in December last year.
Modi is centre stage in Australia after US President Joe Biden cancelled a planned Sydney summit so he could rush back to Washington and negotiate with Republican opponents on the US debt crisis.
It is the last stop on an Asia-Pacific tour during which Modi has looked to assert India’s role in the region.
Over the weekend, the Indian leader joined a Quad summit in Japan with the leaders of the United States, Japan and Australia, to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness.
On Monday, he held a summit with 14 South Pacific states in Papua New Guinea — the first visit to the Pacific nation by an Indian premier.
Jay Shah, a director at the India-Australia Diaspora Foundation, predicted “euphoria” at Modi’s stadium event in Sydney.
Asked about concerns over the treatment of minorities in India, Shah said he could not understand such claims being made about India.
“We respect all the diverse views,” he told AFP.