High Commissioner’s Keynote Address
Asia Society Policy Institute India
“Trajectories and end points: Australia-India relations in 2023”
(Check against delivery) 13 December 2023
Raja that was a warm introduction you gave to me.
To me, arriving here in New Delhi is the culmination of my thirty-five year diplomatic career.
A career that’s seen me serve as Ambassador or High Commissioner five times.
I’ve worked across four continents, presented my credentials to leaders 17 times, and been at the forefront of Australia’s national security policy while in my capital.
Yet for me, assuming this role as Australia’s 22nd High Commissioner to India is the pinnacle of this career.
India is the most consequential relationship, at the most critical moment, I have ever worked on.
It is a privilege for me to be here today.
Our relationship is at the highest point in our history. But I’m not here to rest on laurels.
I’m here to get more things done.
I’m here to drive the relationship further and to drive it faster.
That’s what the Prime Minister told me to do when he sent me here.
Where have we come from?
Before I dive into what I want to get done, I want to take a moment to reflect on just how far we have come.
A predecessor of mine in this role has said that success in the India-Australia relationship can be hard to measure in real time.
It’s too easy to get caught up in the everyday speed humps and jolts forward.
Instead, the suggestion he made was that we needed to measure progress in 5-yearly blocks.
Five years ago, I was back at headquarters in Canberra, overseeing the implementation of Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
It was obvious to me then, just as it is now, that India would be critical to that strategy.
But here’s what else I remember: Five years ago, Australia-India discussion centred on what was not happening.
Why was Australia not part of Exercise Malabar?
Why had we not signed a free trade agreement?
Why had the Quad not progressed more?
Our relationship that was characterised by potential and promise, rather than a true partnership.
Now look at where we are today.
Australia has not only been part of Exercise Malabar since 2020, we hosted the exercise for the first time last August.
It’s just one of many exercises our defence forces undertake together, and with others every year.
On the economic front, our two-way trade has grown by more than 50 per cent in the last five years.
And last year we signed the landmark Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement – ECTA.
This deal has provided the momentum for negotiations towards an even more ambitious goal: a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement or CECA.
Finally, the Quad.
I must admit a bias here – I last visited India in 2019 as the senior official leading Australia’s Quad engagement.
How we talked about the ‘Quad’ back then, and how we talk about it now, are light years apart.
Quad in 2019 meant loose, informal meetings of officials in the margins of multilateral gatherings. No fixed agenda. Sometimes, no substantive statement.
Those discussions, to be frank, largely centred on whether and how the Quad should become the Quad.
Contrast that to what we see now:
We have delivered three Quad Leaders’ Summits. Leaders, as well as Ministers. In addition to a proliferation of Senior Officials’ meetings.
And while today’s news is that President Biden is unable to travel to India in January, Australia will continue to work closely with India and its other partners to support its efforts to host a Quad Leaders’ Summit next year.
In only a few years, we’ve developed a shared vision, a positive agenda, and we’re getting stuff done.
We’re strengthening pandemic preparedness, to detect and respond to emerging disease outbreaks in Southeast Asia.
This comes after the Quad provided over 400 million COVID-19 vaccines to countries in the Indo-Pacific at the height of the pandemic.
We’re supporting more diverse clean energy manufacturing supply chains.
And we’re working to improve the quality and availability of climate-resilient infrastructure in the region.
And just as the Quad has matured, so our bilateral relationship has come a long way in just five years.
The conversation is no longer centred around the things we haven’t done but rather the things we can – and should – do next.
It is a conversation about unlocking greater ambition, and action, across a whole range of fronts.
This has been the result of serious legwork by our governments and our thought leaders.
Many of you here today have been part of that, and I thank you.
What strikes me when considering our bilateral trajectory over the past five years, is the sheer pace of change.
In Australia’s history, we have never seen such a rapid ramp up.
I would say this is the fastest rise in a major power relationship that Australia has ever experienced.
Our ties with our fellow Quad partners, the United States and Japan, were developed over decades.
But while Australia and India have known each other for a long time it is only recently that we have truly embraced one another.
In 2009, Australia and India committed to a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation: a diplomatic way of saying that we should meet a bit more often.
Yet only eleven years later we signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, elevating our status and making Australia one of only two countries the other being Japan with which India has an Annual Leaders’ Summit, a 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting, and a trade agreement.
In other words, with India, it took a little over a decade to lift our relationship to the kind of partnership that we have with our closest friends.
My view is that three underlying drivers are propelling this change. I sum them up in three key words: necessity, opportunity, and affinity.
And I want to use the next part of this speech to explain what I mean by these three drivers.
Necessity: strategic alignment
One thing you need to know about me – and my friend Raja has had to endure this many times – is that I am unashamedly a strategic realist.
For me this makes the interests that Australia and India share as paramount to our relationship.
Everyone here knows that we are living in challenging times, in a more dangerous and volatile region. Global military expenditure is growing, and measures to constrain conflict are not.
China’s military build-up is now the largest of any country since the end of the Second World War.
This build-up is occurring without transparency, or reassurance to the region about its intent.
And it is not just in the military domain where we see this.
We are seeing strategic competition play out amongst a range of states across multiple domains: from the economic to the diplomatic, to the geo-technical, interwoven by a contest of narratives.
We are witnessing the use of coercive trade measures, political interference, and disinformation.
Such actions by some countries encroach on the ability of others to fully exercise their sovereignty and to decide their own destinies.
Such behaviours are compounding risks globally, and pose historic and significant dangers to our ways of life.
I’m only four months in to my time here, but my impression is that India knows these things better than many others.
Australia has felt, in different ways, the impact of these dynamics.
And if India and Australia want to preserve an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific, we need each other.
We see the region the same way, we share the same goals, and we both know what needs to be done.
This is what strategic alignment looks like: a mission to work together.
We have a profound responsibility to do all that we can to prevent, but also prepare for, the worst-case scenarios.
In our case, the responsibility is to preserve peace, by changing the calculus of those who would seek to undermine it.
This means bolstering our deterrence and denial capabilities.
In Australia, we have begun a generational reinvestment in the size, capability and structure of our Defence Force.
We are acquiring nuclear powered submarines, long-range strike systems, manufacturing guided munitions, and upgrading critical air bases across northern Australia.
But Australia’s defences are not enough alone.
We need partners to achieve strategic balance – partners with whom we share a common cause.
Australia is investing in our network of strategic partnerships. We know that when countries pool their resources and combine their strengths, that is a decisive competitive advantage.
And India is an indispensable partner, critical for achieving the sort of strategic equilibrium that we need.
Our defence ties are finding new landing points all the time.
For the first time this year, we welcomed an Indian submarine to dock in Australia, and we welcomed visits by two Indian military aircrafts to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
Our sense of partnership was on full display last month at our second Foreign and Defence Ministers’ 2+2 Meeting in Delhi.
Our Ministers agreed to an ambitious set of outcomes, including expanding the scope and complexity, of our joint military exercises, and to continue deployment of aircraft from each other’s territories to enhance shared maritime domain awareness.
We also decided that our diplomats should be working more cohesively in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is necessity that drives Australia and India to work together, in combination with other nations, to enhance our collective security and prosperity.
Opportunity: Economic complementarity
The second element accelerating our relationship is opportunity.
By this I mean, the great prospects that our underlying commercial, entrepreneurial, and demographic strengths offer each other's economies.
Our ‘economic complementarity’.
What does ‘complementarity’ look like in practice?
Let’s look at it first from the perspective of India’s aspirations for 2030.
By 2030, India wants to install 500 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, double its current capacity.
And produce 5 million metric tons of green hydrogen.
It wants to be a global giant in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing.
It wants to be exporting two trillion dollars’ worth of goods and services.
And it wants university places for seventy million young Indians.
Australia can partner with India to achieve all these ambitions by 2030.
Because we too have ambitions.
Australia already supplies more than half the world’s lithium. We’re the second-largest producer of cobalt and the fourth-largest producer of rare earths on the planet.
Australia has the critical minerals needed to fuel the transition to net zero.
But we need partners.
Partners to invest in our mines and refineries.
Partners to transform those minerals into solar cells, batteries for electric vehicles, and into green steel.
And to export them to the world.
We need more than an assembly line offshore.
We need partners who can collaborate on innovation and technology.
We need partners with young, skilled workforces – who can take two-way investment and transform it into the manufacturing supply chains of the future.
India fits that picture better than any country I know.
Our Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) eliminated tariffs on most of the critical minerals needed for solar panels, electric cars, wind turbines, mobiles and more.
And our Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which we are now negotiating, will boost supply chains for the minerals India needs to drive its manufacturing and exports.
India’s Finance Minister Sitharaman, said just last week that India was the second-most sought-after manufacturing destination in the world.
With Australian critical minerals, there’s no reason it can’t be the first.
But our partnership will not just deliver for one sector.
In education, the number of Indian students enrolled in Australian courses is ten times higher than it was in 2002.
There’s a reason for this. India has a lot of young people to be upskilled. And Australia has a complementary dynamic: we have unmet potential for our universities to train able, young people.
So, there’s a strong basis for Indian students will continue to choose Australia.
There’s no reason for it to be a one-way street.
Next year Australia’s Deakin and Wollongong Universities will be the first foreign universities to set up campuses in India – opening a new chapter in our education ties.
They won’t be the last, either. India’s readiness to host foreign branch campuses is driving interest among many other Australian universities.
When it comes to our economies, our resources, and our skills: we are a match, a natural fit.
Affinity: ‘human bridge’
The third driver that is bringing us closer is our increasing affinity.
Since my arrival here I’ve been taken by the concept of the ‘human bridge’.
Between 2011 and 2021 the number of Australians with Indian ancestry more than doubled.
India has surpassed China and New Zealand to become the third-largest country of birth for Australians after Australia and England].
Today, Indians are woven into the contemporary Australian story. That diaspora is educated, entrepreneurial, and engaged.
Does that sound like vapid sentiment? Well, it’s actually the empirical reality, evident from the Australian census.
Our census data from 2021 tells us that Indian Australians, once settled, are one and a half times more likely to volunteer in the community than any other major diaspora groups.
The census also tells us that Indian Australians are around twice as likely to be educated at Masters degree or higher than Australia’s overall population.
And Indian Australians are twice as likely to be entrepreneurial and start their own business.
We in the Australian Government want to leverage the opportunity offered to us by an able, active, engaged Indian diaspora.
That’s why our Prime Minister announced the establishment of a Centre for Australia-India Relations, backed by millions of Australian dollars, and headed by two distinguished Australians of Indian origin.
The Centre will be a catalyst for Australian and Indian businesses, as well as a champion for the Indian diaspora community in Australia.
No other partner country for India has set up such an institution, invested so much into our ties, and headed it by such significant and impressive members of the diaspora.
Necessity, opportunity, and affinity: strategic alignment, economic complementarity, and human connection.
These are the three drivers that are impelling our partnership.
Where to next
These three drivers tell us why Australia and India have embraced each other.
But the instrumental question for me then becomes: how can we harness this momentum, and channel it to have the greatest impact in the future?
At this stage in our relationship, what matters is where we focus and how we work together.
No two relationships are alike. But across my career, I like to think I’ve learnt a thing or two about building international partnerships.
I want to give special credit here to my good friend, the US Ambassador Eric Garcetti. Eric got me thinking on this when he said that India and the US had changed their Facebook status from ‘it’s complicated’ to ‘we’re dating’.
Well said Eric. But let me extend the metaphor.
We too have a status update with India. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?
We’re not just telling the world we’re together. We’re buying furniture, we’re meeting the families, we’re making long-term plans.
We’re sharing responsibilities and developing new habits.
We are also learning about each other at a deeper level: we've had our differences and we’re managing sensitive issues – including the concerns we have about alleged activities on US and Canadian territory.
We are also taking a greater interest in how each of us develop. For Australians, that means taking a bigger interest in the trajectory of your society, your governance, your institutions and traditions.
We are taking a bigger interest because, as we build this partnership, your trajectory is more important to us than it was before.
Much more important.
The romance hasn’t gone, we’re just building something more meaningful.
We’re nurturing our chemistry and developing something more tangible.
Because relationships need substance.
They need honesty, they need a readiness to sensitively manage differences; not just tick the box that says “friend”.
A partnership works best when it is self-fulfilling: when we create a positive feedback loop, a snowball effect, if you like, of cooperation.
And it’s when your bilateral relationship has multiplier effects for others.
The three priorities: MDA, trade, green energy
Thinking about our relationship leads me to identify three areas where, working together, India and Australia can most meaningfully step up our engagement.
The three focus areas for me are:
- Maritime Domain Awareness;
- Two-way trade and investment; and
- Green energy transformation
In each of these three areas, there is a clear trajectory of cooperation already.
But further, concerted efforts by our governments can deliver substantial benefits not only for Australia and India, but for our partners in the wider region.
Let me outline the goals I have in mind for each of these areas.
First, maritime domain awareness cooperation.
This was a key area of discussion during the recent visits by our Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
It is where we have the most scope to turn our strategic alignment into practical, cohesive diplomatic actions.
It is where we each need the other the most: where the necessity of cooperation is greatest.
Our maritime cooperation also sends a message to our region.
It reminds them that we are protecting vital sea lanes, monitoring vulnerable chokepoints, and responding to the needs of our maritime environment.
Our maritime neighbourhood is large, it is complex, and it is diverse.
Australia can’t cover it all; India can’t cover it all; our other partners, including the Americans, can’t cover it all.
But together, we can get a much better picture; a truly shared picture.
I want to see us deepen our maritime cooperation, share responsibility, and maximise our resources to monitor and protect the Indian Ocean.
That means routinely using each other’s offshore territories to expand our strategic reach.
It means working towards a stage of deep interoperabilty where our forces are side-by-side and seamlessly exchanging ideas, tactics and procedures.
And eventually, I would hope that we can exchange and integrate personnel and equipment too. Interchangeability is an aspiration we should not persist with.
We need to bed down habits of cooperation among our defence personnel.
I want to see Indian officers at Australia’s joint headquarters, embedded alongside the Australian Defence Force.
There may even be a place for developing together the capability to more efficiently build this shared maritime picture – for example, by using autonomous vessels that have extreme range and endurance.
A Sydney firm, OCIUS, has already fielded such a capability with the Australian Navy and is exploring opportunities with India too.
Second, boosting two-way trade and investment.
I want us to have a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that expands the range of goods available in India, strengthens Indian supply chains, and advances its green transition.
ECTA already gets us some of the way there.
96 per cent of Indian goods now enter Australia duty free, and 85 per cent of Australian goods now enter India without tariffs.
Our companies have noticed and are benefiting. India’s utilisation rate for goods under our agreement is 77 per cent – around triple what it is for some of India’s other free trade agreements.
We have seen Australian imports of India’s agricultural goods increase by 16 per cent, and imports of Indian apparel increase by 9 per cent.
Our CECA agreement will take this even further and faster to deliver for Australian and Indian businesses.
We have had some good rounds of negotiation. We have a lot of text settled. We know India is focused at present on getting to the finish line with the UK. We are ready to conclude our second phase in due course – but our focus will be on ambition – a good deal, not any deal.
In five years, I want to see our trajectory continue on migration, tourism, education, and the intermingling of our peoples.
I want to see that ‘human bridge’ increase our investment links, as people who know both India and Australia continue to create opportunities that enrich us both.
Beyond these areas, there is scope for more cooperation on agriculture.
Australia and India have been collaborating for decades on better farming practices.
This is particularly important since 700 million Indian livelihoods are dependent on agriculture.
Australia is proud to be delivering them support.
Australian firms are deploying technology to tackle animal diseases and to lower the emissions of fertilisers.
Our agencies are sharing research on sustainable water management and more drought resilient rice, chickpeas and wheat.
And now with ECTA, our industries are partnering together across sectors like horticulture, wine, dairy, cotton and wool.
Deeper economic engagement, including through concluding a comprehensive free trade agreement will bring further benefits for those 700 million souls.
Third, and finally, the green energy transformation.
There can be no affordable, scalable renewable solutions without India.
And there can be no Indian renewables solutions without inputs from Australia.
Our ECTA sets up our industries well with the elimination of tariffs on most critical minerals inputs.
But we need to be more focused.
The market for these critical minerals in Australia is hot, with North America, Europe and East Asia securing much of the offtake.
I want Indian batteries being made with Australian lithium.
I want Indian green steel being made with Australian green iron.
I want Indian solar panels being made with Australian silicon.
No one understands the complexity of mining and critical minerals supply chains like Australia.
But to make this happen we need to work together so Indian companies can quickly secure the offtake needed to meet India’s domestic production goals.
India has serious targets to decarbonise its steel sector and produce green steel.
Australia and India are collaborating on research to make steel more efficient and less carbon intensive.
This could all be so much easier if low-carbon hot briquetted iron produced with Australian green hydrogen could be part of India’s green steel supply chain.
As India works toward its goal of a net zero steel supply chain by 2070, hot briquetted iron is surely part of the solution.
And I want India to become a global manufacturing hub for the solar PV that the world needs to get to net zero.
Using Australian silicon and critical minerals backed by tangible, innovative collaboration on technological advancements.
Australia is a clear part of this story.
So we should: the PERC technology that is used in 90 per cent of the world’s panels was invented in my home town, Sydney.
We’re working with India to share technology and the lessons we’ve learned to accelerate India’s solar industry development.
If we can focus and achieve these priorities, by mobilising and enabling our governments, there is no stopping the transformative positive impact the Australia-India relationship will have: For ourselves, for our allies and partners, and for our region.
Our relationship will continue to broaden… and deepen… so that we are fully integrated strategic, economic, and cultural partners, collaborating across all domains.
In five years’ time, at the next ‘stocktake’, I’m confident that we’ll have a partnership that is succeeding in realising its potential.
In five years’ time, I would like my successor to look at where we are now with the same sense of achievement, and ambition, I have shared with you today.
Over the next five years, I am confident we can take the relationship to that point.
I look forward to doing it together.