High Commissioner's address at the Global Dialogue Forum’s Security Summit 2020
(check against delivery) 11 December 2020
I’m pleased to be able to join these discussions, even if virtually. My thanks to Mr Moses Manoharan and the Global Dialogue Forum for putting on a stimulating program.
‘Contesting the Indo-Pacific for Global Domination’
The theme of this year’s Global Security Summit should give us pause to reflect.
Not because it draws attention to competing visions of the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific is at high tide. Historic, demographic, economic and military forces are moulding the region into the world’s strategic centre of gravity.
The region is projected to account for two thirds of the world’s economic growth. Its home to six of the world’s ten biggest military spenders.
It’s where many of the world’s economic opportunities lie. It’s also the focal point of competing interests and potential instability.
So it’s natural, and in fact crucial, for us to consider competing aspirations for such an important part of the world.
But the fact that such discussions can be framed in the context of global domination underscores just how much of an historic inflection point we face.
And this situation calls for cooperation now to create the kind of open and inclusive region we want to live in.
This is crucial for Australia because like India, the Indo-Pacific is where we live. So much of our wealth comes from, or is reliant on, this region of our world. Our neighbourhood.
If we want to preserve our energy security, and protect maritime trade routes, then we must focus on the Indian Ocean as one of our highest priorities.
If we want to strengthen our economy, it means responsibly utilising, protecting and maintaining a presence throughout the maritime environment, including in the Indian Ocean.
It’s where Australia has one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the region.
We also recognise the important part Australia has to play in supporting stability and the rule of law throughout the region – and to help our partners do the same – so that collectively we benefit from the growth the Indo-Pacific offers all of us.
In doing so, cooperation is key. And for this we look to our top tier partners like India.
Australia and India
The Indo-Pacific is our neighbourhood and India is our neighbour. Our capitals might be 10 thousand kilometres apart, but our countries are far closer than that.
We share the Indian Ocean for a start.
That makes us stewards of a global maritime resource. We want to preserve freedom of navigation and commerce, and to preserve the marine environment for generations to come.
Our cultural links go deep. I’m often struck that one in 35 Australians have Indian ancestry. One in 35 either born in India or with one parent born here.
And while the pandemic has obviously disrupted the course of normal business, before it struck we had some 100,000 Indians studying in Australia, and around 360,000 Indian tourists visiting.
Indian immigrants were set to emerge as our second largest migrant community. Hindi and Punjabi are among the top 10 most widely spoken languages in the country—and Hinduism is our fastest growing religion.
Our business ties are strong and growing. And so too are our strategic interests.
You’ll recall Prime Minister Modi outlining India’s Indo-Pacific vision in 2018. It included open trade; transparency; a central role for ASEAN; and a rules-based order where the rights of all states were respected.
That’s a very natural complement to Australia’s vision for the region. Which is for rules and norms to provide peace and the space for us to prosper; open markets, rules and cooperation leading to economic integration and growth; and a region resilient to the economic and security challenges we all face.
In other words, the links between our countries aren’t just fleeting; not just opportunistic. They are enduring. And demographic and structural forces mean they will only grow stronger.
Before us is potential for historic cooperation across the board. Health security; counter-terrorism; cyber security; infrastructure development; enhancing supply chain resilience; strengthening regional maritime security.
These are all crucial avenues through which India and Australia can create the reality we both want to live and prosper in—in the post-COVID world.
However we know we will encounter hurdles along the way.
We’ve seen the devastating impacts that COVID has had on us, the people we know, and the economies of our respective countries.
The pandemic hasn’t fully run its course, and the full extent of its damage is unknown. But we do know it has accelerated many of the negative trends in the Indo-Pacific that India and Australia would like to see reversed.
This disease has cost lives, exacerbated instability, and threatens to undermine hard won growth and development gains in our region.
And that is happening during a time when great power tensions are rising.
As I feared when speaking to the National Defence College earlier this year, the use of grey-zone strategies and coercive tactics is growing.
Strategic competition is sharpening across the Indo-Pacific, with disputes flaring at India’s Line of Actual Control with China, and in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
All of this means Australia and India face significant hurdles at a time when our resources and our attention are spread across multiple domains. That makes coordination towards common goals more important than ever.
The US-China relationship is among the most important in the Indo-Pacific, because relations between both powers have the potential to set the tone for cooperation or competition.
But we should remember that the Indo-Pacific doesn’t belong to the US or China. It’s a diverse and inclusive region, open for countries like Australia and India to play important leadership roles.
India – a natural Indo-Pacific leader
Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar have shown admirable regional leadership, even while the country faced the unprecedented health crisis that is the pandemic.
They conducted considerable outreach, coordinating responses across the globe, including South, Southeast, and East Asia.
They convened a virtual summit between members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, with whom they established an emergency COVID fund.
Under their leadership India deployed medical teams and distributed medicine and equipment across the region.
At the Non-Aligned Movement summit they sensibly called for the strengthening of institutions and cooperation for the benefit of humanity.
This is the only way we can emerge from this crisis.
And it serves as a template for India’s constructive leadership as an Indo-Pacific power: a nation striving to shape the neighbourhood for the better, and to provide for the common good.
Australia – supporting regional resilience
Australia shares that responsibility.
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said recently that we must prepare for a post-COVID world even while responding to the pandemic itself. That world, he predicted, would be poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly.
To that end Australia has been working to assist our international partners in their pandemic response, with a view not just to emerging from this crisis stronger, but also shaping our strategic environment for the better.
That effort starts at home, where we’ve been using a range of measures to support Australian workers and ensure our economy remains productive.
We are using our annual aid program of over 20 thousand crore to bolster countries across the Indo-Pacific so they can respond to the pandemic and build their resilience.
We have stepped up out programs across Pacific and South Asian countries.
In these endeavours Australia is advocating for more economic openness, and a regional acceptance of the rules and norms that have underpinned the Indo-Pacific’s economic growth for decades.
Those efforts are reflected in key achievements, like our Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Indonesia, which came into force in July.
Initiatives like these that will help the region to grow jobs and help it to recover from the pandemic.
Australia is also working trilaterally with India and Japan, and India and Indonesia, to promote economic growth and inclusive regional approaches to shared challenges across the Indo-Pacific.
And we’re working more closely than ever before with our partners: India, the US, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam.
We are also working to bolster multilateral institutions: ASEAN-led bodies; the Indian Ocean Rim Association; and institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum to develop a common understanding of, and regional approaches to, maritime safety and security; health; and technology.
It was in that spirit that we sought an independent review of the WHO’s approach to COVID, because it is crucial that we learn lessons from this crisis for the benefit of all nations.
We were gratified that the review received such a strong mandate after the World Health Assembly passed an historic resolution calling for an impartial, independent evaluation to the lessons learnt from the global response.
In all our multilateral interactions we are seeking to shape institutions that are fit for purpose; relevant; contemporary; accountable; free from undue influence; and have an appropriately strong Indo-Pacific focus.
In other words, like India, Australia wants to do our part to make sure that multilateral institutions continue to deliver for all.
To complement these economic and diplomatic efforts, we have also recognised the need for defence capabilities to keep pace with evolving Indo-Pacific dynamics, and to ensure we are positioned to contribute to a free, open and inclusive maritime environment.
To that end, we recently announced our 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, which boosts investment in our defence capabilities by 40 per cent from our last review, which occurred in 2016. As part of this, we’ll be making new investments in land, sea and air based long range and hypersonic strike missiles.
This comes on top of what was already our Navy’s biggest regeneration since the Second World War – and our transition to a fifth-generation Air Force. We have also committed the largest investments in our cyber security capabilities in history.
These outlays are guided by Australia’s assessment that we must be capable to more effectively shape, deter and respond to the increased challenges the Indo-Pacific faces, most particularly in the Northeast Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
Australia and India – natural Indo-Pacific partners
It’s a busy time for Australia and India indeed. And it’s clear that throughout this crisis, both countries have recognised the strengths they each bring to bear, and the imperative to shape the Indo-Pacific together.
We saw this in plain view during the Virtual Leaders’ Summit between Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison in June.
Both leaders recognised that it was more important than ever for likeminded democracies to work together, something Prime Minister Modi called a ‘sacred duty’, remarking that our countries can be ‘factors for stability for our region and the world.’
And so our relationship has reached a high watermark: we have elevated it to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
We laid out a substantial and ambitious plan for cooperation through eight agreements across a range of areas where both countries can have an outsized impact on the Indo-Pacific.
These cover defence and maritime security, cyber and critical technology, critical minerals, education, water, public administration and governance.
Our defence cooperation is at its highest point in history, with more collaboration and activities than ever before, at higher levels of complexity than before.
We’re collaborating in a record number of activities that are becoming ever more complex – aided now by our new Mutual Logistic Support Arrangement.
Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison also signed a Joint Maritime Declaration and agreed on an action plan to cooperate under India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative to influence how rules, norms and behaviours evolve in the maritime domain.
We will work hand in hand with our partners in ASEAN and the Indian Ocean Rim Association to strengthen regional approaches to open sea lanes, the rule of law and responsible use of maritime resources supporting economic development.
And we will continue looking to the Quadrilateral security dialogue as an increasingly useful mechanism for strengthening shared interests in maritime security, counter terrorism and cyber security.
As I said at outset, we have before us historically significant opportunities to collaborate across a significant range of issues. We’re open for business, and for ideas.
There are two themes where I think the rubber will increasingly hit the road when it comes to cooperation between India and Australia.
The first is, even greater cooperation in Southeast Asia – a region whose premier grouping, ASEAN, is recognised by both countries as central to the Indo-Pacific’s architecture.
It makes sense. India’s former Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, made a really important point at this year’s Raisina Dialogue.
He spoke of the extent of historical cooperation between India and its Southeast Asian partners, well before colonialism created artificial barriers between the two.
And it’s true. India’s influence throughout Southeast Asia is plain to see.
Almost every country in the region adopted the Indian epic Ramayana.
And India’s links weren’t limited just to cultural, or only religious. They extended to longstanding trade ties as early as the 3rdCentury.
It’s no surprise that those links have survived, or that Southeast Asia would welcome Indian engagement in the region.
In fact in many ways, New Delhi represents the opportunity to engage with a major power that doesn’t come with the political overhead that stems from others engaged in open competition.
Australia too has close and enduring partnerships in Southeast Asia. Our geographic proximity and shared economic and security interests all but guarantee our closeness.
So, as nations on either end of the Indo-Pacific, with complementary interests and whose influence intersects in Southeast Asia, I believe India and Australia have lots of potential cooperation to explore to shape the environment we live in.
The second theme of cooperation I’d draw your attention to is critical technologies. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Indian Observer Research Foundation released a report recently on this very topic.
It sees India’s growing status as a global technology hub. And Australia’s position as one of the first countries to protect its critical cyber infrastructure by ensuring high risk vendors could not cause vulnerabilities to that infrastructure.
And it identifies numerous opportunities for collaboration between the two. Both countries have effectively limited the range of vendors they will allow into their 5G networks, leaving open the potential for cooperation.
And there’s scope for collaboration across the board in artificial intelligence and space technologies.
This type of partnership would help put both countries at the forefront of tech collaboration and maximise the benefits of emerging technologies.
It would certainly do more than help mitigate against future vulnerabilities. It would also help us foster links with, and support for, our smaller regional partners by helping to build their own capacity and development.
Shortly Australia will launch the Australia-India Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership grant program to drive this forward.
Proposals will be sought from industry experts and researchers in Australia and India to inform us about the critical technologies – like AI, quantum computing and big data – shaping the future, and the standards and best practices underpinning them.
These are just a taste of the options available to us, and that India and Australia will no doubt explore. Watch this space.
It is a fraught and complex strategic environment we live in.
But I’d like to share a thought I voiced to students of India’s National Defence College earlier in the year.
I said that Australia’s fundamental national values won’t change, even as our strategic environment does.
We’re a country committed to rule of law. To political, economic and religious freedom. To liberal democracy, and to equality.
Those values fundamentally shape Australians’ way of life – and in turn they shape our approach to strategy and to diplomacy.
As you have seen in the media, these values have been put to the test this year and the nation—government and citizens—have not wavered. We are not for turning.
Regardless of COVID—or the next crisis, whatever shape it takes, Australia will always seek a strategic environment where the rights of all states are respected.
Where open markets facilitate the flow of free trade. And where disputes are managed peacefully, legally and without coercion.
We can’t sit back and hope that such circumstances will arrive by themselves – we have to actively create them.
And that can’t be done alone. It will require collaboration and cooperation with likeminded, reliable partners to achieve.
This year we have learned many lessons. Including about friends, nations who share our views for the world and can be relied upon in the cause of achieving that goal.
As I said at the start, Australia knows India is a top tier partner in this mission.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your perspectives.