SYDNEY (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was welcomed by around 20,000 cheering fans, many chanting “Modi,” at a Sydney stadium on Tuesday during his second visit to Australia as his country’s leader.
Modi shared the stage with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who compared the reception by the primarily Indian crowd at Qudos Bank Arena to a concert by U.S. rock star Bruce Springsteen at the same venue.
“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 told the capacity crowd.
“Prime Minister Modi is the Boss,” Albanese added, using Springsteen’s nickname.
Modi told the audience he expected trade between the two countries will double in the next five years.
“Our positive cooperation is growing in areas like climate action, disaster management, strategic technologies, reliable supply chain, education and health security,” Modi said.
“It hasn’t grown through diplomacy. The real strength is the Indians living in Australia,” he added.
A skywriter had earlier emblazoned the sky over Sydney with the message “Welcome Modi” in an indication of the city’s enthusiasm about the 72-year-old Indian leader’s visit.
The Indian diaspora accounts for only 3% of Australia’s population but is the nation’s fastest growing ethnic minority.
Modi is the only leader of the so-called Quad nations to continue with his scheduled visit to Australia after U.S. 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, later canceled his Australia trip as well.
Modi told The Australian newspaper that he wants to take India’s relationship with Australia to the “next level,” including closer defense and security ties to help ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
“As two democracies, India and Australia have shared interests in a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. There is alignment of our strategic viewpoint,” Modi told the newspaper.
“The high degree of mutual trust between us has naturally translated into greater cooperation on defense and security matters. Our navies are participating in joint naval exercises. I am confident that there is merit in working together to realize the true potential in closer defense and security cooperation,” Modi added.
Albanese told Parliament that Australia will host naval exercises involving India, the United States and Japan called Malabar for the first time this year in another sign of a deepening commitment to the Quad.
“India is a key strategic partner,” Albanese told Parliament. “We are both part of a growing and dynamic region and Prime Minister Modi is a very welcome visitor to our shores.”
Albanese said he and Modi expect to complete negotiations on a free trade deal before the end of the year.
“That will create Australian jobs, helping our industries prosper, sparking growth in innovation,” Albanese said.
Negotiations on the deal began in 2011. The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement would increase the scope of a bilateral trade pact that came into force last December.
India is Australia’s sixth largest trading partner, with the two-way exchange of goods and services valued at 46.5 billion Australian dollars ($31 billion) last year.
Australia is eager to increase trade with India as a means of diversifying from China, Australia’s biggest trading partner. Australian efforts to improve trade relations with India have gained urgency in recent years as Beijing has imposed restrictions on certain Australian products.
Modi last visited Australia in November 2014, just months after his government was first elected.
Australia pulled out of the original Quad security dialogue with India, the United States and Japan in 2008, fearing the grouping would provoke a Chinese military buildup. Since China took that course anyway, the Quad reformed in 2017 and Australia returned to joint Quad military exercises in 2020.
With the Quad summit in Sydney canceled, a substitute Quad meeting was convened on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Japan.
Modi arrived in Sydney on Monday night from Papua New Guinea, where he hosted a meeting with Pacific Island leaders to discuss ways to better cooperate.
Asked if Australia would raise the issue of Muslim and minority rights in India with the Hindu leader, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said he expected Albanese and Modi would have a “full conversation.”
“We have never had a greater strategic alignment with India than we do right now. Both countries are deeply invested in the collective security of the Indo-Pacific region,” Marles said.
Sydney doctor Vani Arjunamani, one of the organizers of a rally near the stadium where Modi appeared, said the Indian leader was drawing bigger crowds than he did when he visited Australia in 2014.
“It’s very interesting, isn’t it? Is there another head of state that can pull this crowd? It is very unusual,” Arjunamani said.
McGuirk contributed from Canberra, Australia.
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.