Australia-India relations and the Western Pacific
Address to the National Defence College by Australian High Commissioner-designate, Barry O’Farrell
22 April 2020
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It’s a real pleasure to join you today. I’d like to extend my thanks to Air Marshal Choudhury for the opportunity to do so.
This is a valuable chance for me to speak with you because almost as soon as I arrived in New Delhi, the COVID-19 crisis enveloped us all.
I haven’t yet been able to visit the NDC, though I remain keen to do so, and I’m very pleased we could arrange this teleconference in the meantime.
As you might imagine in recent weeks my focus has largely been on providing consular support to Australians stranded in India because of the flight ban.
And on finding ways to do the business of diplomacy by distance; hardly a traditional introduction to diplomatic life!
But it’s important that we keep our eyes on the horizon – on the things that matter to our nations in the long term. So I’m glad to be engaging on defence and strategic issues, and with you all, even if remotely.
Regrettably, this morning my time is restricted and I can only join you for an hour as we are about to announce further repatriation flights for our citizens.
However the timing of this engagement is auspicious.
On Saturday Australia and New Zealand will commemorate ANZAC day.
It’s a chance for us to reflect on the sacrifices our service members made in the First World War and subsequent conflicts.
For me it will also be a day of personal reflection, as the son of a career soldier and the father of an infantry officer.
For Australia and India, it’s an important reminder of how far back our defence relationship goes.
Fourteen thousand Indian soldiers fought at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, which was Australia’s most remembered battle. So you could say our defence relationship goes back more than a century.
The National Defence College has a sterling reputation for producing thoughtful leaders.
That’s why we’ve sent students here nearly every year since 1966, including of course former Governor-General of Australia, General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
It’s also why I’m pleased that our next Defence Adviser to New Delhi, Group Captain Terry Deeth, joins you on NDC course 60. Terry, I’m looking forward to working with you.
The COVID-19 crisis reminds us that more than ever we need leaders who – like General Cosgrove – can confront ambiguity. Who think creatively, not just critically. And who act decisively.
I have every confidence that the NDC and the Diamond Jubilee course are up to the challenge.
I’ve been asked to talk about the India-Australia relationship, and about the geopolitics of the Pacific, right when COVID-19 is prompting many in the international community to question strategic assumptions.
Our strategic thinkers are asking:
- What does the pandemic mean for the US’s global leadership? For its strategic influence relative to China?
- Will COVID cause a longer-term global retreat into nationalism and protectionism?
- Which countries will emerge from the crisis stronger than others, and capable of shaping the post-COVID world?
They’re fascinating questions, the answers to which will emerge over your time at NDC.
But for our discussion today I’ll make two key points.
Firstly, 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. Liberal democracy. And equality.
Those values fundamentally shape Australians’ way of life – and our approach to strategy and diplomacy.
Regardless of COVID-19’s lasting impacts on the world, 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.
Secondly, I can’t predict the future. But I’m bold enough to say this:
If the pandemic is to have any influence on Australia’s strategy, it will be to accelerate the very trends that brought Australia and India so close together, and have shaped our approach to the Indo-Pacific.
I’d like to explore this second point for a moment, because if I’m right, now is the time for us to redouble our efforts and work on shaping the post-COVID world.
My predecessor Harinder Sidhu is a big fan of the NDC, and spoke there regularly. She outlined the trends that were shaping Australia’s strategic outlook, and in turn guiding the approaches we articulated in our Foreign Policy White Paper and associated Indo-Pacific strategy.
These documents describe the shift of global power from West to East.
To the Indo-Pacific in particular – a region projected to deliver over two thirds of the world’s growth.
Even allowing for COVID, the Indo-Pacific will continue to be the engine of the global economy in the decades to come.
Military spending reflects the economic weight of the Indo-Pacific. Six of the world’s ten biggest military spenders are in this region.
But we are also seeing deepening rivalries and growing strategic competition.
And international law and institutions coming under greater pressure.
Including ASEAN, an institution that both India and Australia recognise as core to regional security and stability.
In fact nations are becoming more tempted to use power coercively.
Across the Indo-Pacific we are seeing increasing strategic competition driving exploitation of some of the more fragile developing states.
In the race to secure economic and strategic advantage through port access and military reach, great power rivalry is testing state sovereignty of our more vulnerable regional partners.
But what do we see now, in light of COVID-19? It will take time to play out. But I see a US far more cautious about exercising global leadership than in the past.
I see even faster shifts in the Indo-Pacific power balance, with an associated sharpening of strategic competition. And an even more factious multilateral system.
The current pandemic is stretching much of the world’s governmental capacity.
A natural disaster is difficult enough to respond to; trying to do so when you’re already containing a pandemic tests even the most capable nations. We’re seeing this challenge unfold in the Pacific as we speak, in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Harold.
And of course there’s no shortage of terrorists who would exploit insecurity and diminished government capacity for their own ends – and would look to foster communal tension amid a crisis.
In other words, before COVID-19 became our reality, Australia was already approaching the Pacific, and the Indo-Pacific, with these concerns in mind.
As was India.
I don’t think COVID will necessarily change the nature of threats we face. But it will hasten the pace at which they are developing.
And so I believe this crisis will bring Australia and India even closer together as two Indian Ocean democracies with complementary values.
And India – a civilizational power – will have an enormous role to play in shaping the post-COVID world. It’s well placed to do this as one of the very few economies currently projected to emerge from this crisis not in recession.
We’ve seen some remarkable leadership from India since this crisis began. The world is facing an unprecedented health challenge for which no government has a perfect answer.
It’s laudable not just that the Indian government acted so quickly to stem the virus’s spread, but also that it continues working to mitigate the lockdown’s impact on India’s most vulnerable.
It’s an enormous challenge for the world’s most populous nation.
And amid the enormity of the task, India’s armed forces have played their part.
The military has provided evacuation flights, delivered critical supplies, and readied facilities in preparation for quarantine and medical treatment.
The armed forces prepared something like 10 thousand hospital beds, and nearly as many doctors and support staff, to augment civilian efforts.
India has also kept a thoughtful eye on the region.
Your military delivered medical supplies to most of India’s neighbours. The Indian Air Force flew a medical rapid response team to Kuwait, and transported essential goods to the Maldives.
Prime Minister Modi established the PM’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations fund.
And although he was no doubt heavily engaged with the domestic implications of this pandemic, he was routinely on the telephone with bilateral partners – including Australia – as the pandemic has unfolded.
It was Modi who led nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to coordinate pandemic responses – and establish the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund – almost as soon as the crisis began.
Your Prime Minister is also one of the leading voices shaping the G20 into a body instrumental in leading the world into post-COVID recovery, and was an early voice advocating for reforms to the World Health Organisation.
These regionally focused steps are consistent with the increasing international leadership role we’ve seen India take in support of a free, open and inclusive region.
After Prime Minister Modi articulated his vision for the Indo-Pacific in 2018, India’s External Affairs Ministry moved to establish a dedicated Indo-Pacific division.
India deepened its engagement with Southeast Asia, including through the upgrade of its relationship with Indonesia to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
And it finalised construction of the Sittwe Port in Myanmar, one of India’s signature infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia.
You’d have heard of course of the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region.
This is an important means of monitoring and securing the Indian Ocean – an ocean we share – and a key example of Indian leadership in the region. We’re glad to be contributing a Liaison Officer to it in due course.
These are all important signals of India’s seriousness in implementing its Act East Policy and broader strategic agenda – irrespective of what crisis of the day it is confronting.
And what of Australia?
As you may know, we too have developed an Indo-Pacific strategy in response to the evolving strategic environment I outlined.
Its six pillars are to:
- Strengthen our alliance with the US, which is central to our approach to the Indo-Pacific.
- Seek a workable relationship with China, noting Beijing’s greater capacity to share responsibility for supporting regional and global security.
- Work with the Indo-Pacific’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings. Central among these is of course India, as well as the US, Japan, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea.
- Support ASEAN centrality and unity, including through a plan to ensure we are a leading security, economic and development partner for Southeast Asia.
- Support regional trade, investment and infrastructure building so they are inclusive and based on market principles. We know from long experience that open, outward-looking regional economies strongly connected to global markets are vital to maximising economic growth and helping to guard against protectionism and strategic rivalry.
- And the sixth pillar is to boost defence engagement to enhance the capacity of our regional partners to manage security challenges.
What does that mean in practice? Unsurprisingly we have a strong focus on the Pacific.
We want to ensure it is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically.
A core theme has been responsiveness to Pacific requirements. That’s why we sharpened our focus on climate change and disaster resilience, and we expanded the Pacific Labour Scheme to allow more Pacific Islanders to work in Australia.
We also created a 2 billion dollar infrastructure financing facility for the Pacific, and are providing the majority funding for undersea telecommunications cables to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Of interest to a defence audience, we’ve been supporting Fiji to redevelop its Black Rock facility into a regional hub for police and peacekeeping training and pre-deployment preparation.
And we’ve been supporting the Papua New Guinea defence force to upgrade its Lombrum naval base.
Of course the outbreak of COVID means that some forms of our engagement will have to be paused, or conducted in new and innovative ways.
But there will never be a future in which Australia is not heavily invested in the Pacific.
Of course Southeast Asia is core to our concept of the Indo-Pacific, much as it is for India.
Among other initiatives, we established a 121 million dollar Southeast Asia economic governance and infrastructure initiative designed to help unlock the region’s next phase of growth.
We expanded cooperation with Southeast Asia on maritime issues, including on maritime law, maritime domain awareness and strengthening civil maritime organisations.
All of which was designed to strengthen a rules-based maritime order.
We also have great ambition for the India-Australia relationship to strengthen the security and stability of the Indian Ocean region.
India is the natural major power in the region, and Australia looks to it as a strategic partner with complementary interests.
We both have significant Indian Ocean coastlines, strategic island territories, highly capable military reach and valuable trade routes across the Indian Ocean.
We contribute to the South Asian Regional Infrastructure Connectivity initiative, designed to support high quality infrastructure investments with particular focus on South Asia’s energy and transport sectors.
Our 2018 India Economic Strategy set an ambition to have India become a top three trading partner for Australia by 2035.
We support India’s leadership in institutions like the Indian Ocean Rim Association as it helps to shape it into a genuinely norm-building entity.
Our defence relationship with India is at a historic peak.
Defence activities between the two countries quadrupled from 2014 to around forty last year.
You may have heard our bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX was the largest ever Australian defence deployment to India.
It was also our most complex to date, involving submarine-on-submarine serials, and coordinated P-8 maritime patrol aircraft missions over the Bay of Bengal.
So we’re exceptionally well placed to build on our partnership in a post-COVID world. But where to from here?
Both countries’ attention is rightly placed on protecting their populations against the pandemic. And we’ll continue to look at ways we can help each other in that effort.
But I’ll focus here on defence cooperation.
I note we’re very close to finalising a defence science and technology sharing arrangement.
We’ll be looking at that to see if there are ways we might leverage this new framework of scientific cooperation to support each other’s responses to COVID-19.
I’ve no doubt science cooperation will have renewed significance in Australia’s relationship with India, not just in the defence sphere.
We will soon conclude a mutual logistics support arrangement, which will significantly boost our ability to exercise and operate together.
Looking further out, we mustn’t rest on our laurels when it comes to military exercises. I mentioned the complexity of our most recent iteration of AUSINDEX. That complexity – that level of closeness – should be the norm, not the exception.
We anticipate many opportunities to cooperate.
Particularly noting that our militaries have many common platforms. Not least the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft, and India’s soon-to-be-acquired MH-60 Romeo helicopters.
Likewise, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to exercises.
We share an ocean, and have a significant interest in keeping it safe, secure and open. And we also share a responsibility to protect it.
There are many ways we can reinforce each other’s efforts in doing so. We can make defence facilities available to each other to expand our militaries’ respective operational reach.
And we should remain heavily engaged with our Southeast Asian partners.
Southeast Asia is the region feeling the heat of increasing great power competition, and challenges to norms and institutions.
Cooperation between India and Australia in Southeast Asia is a natural fit.
We bring decades of experience collaborating closely with regional partners across the full spectrum of issues.
Our largest embassy in the world is in Jakarta – not in Beijing, not in London, and not in Washington.
India’s traditionally non-aligned stance, and its deep cultural and religious links to the region, make it a natural partner for Southeast Asian countries.
India represents a major power without some of the baggage that others can bring.
As a starting point, we should build on last year’s successful trilateral Maritime Security Workshop with Indonesia to identify new ways that our three countries can collaborate to be the best possible custodians of the Indian Ocean.
As I mentioned at the outset, we need leaders capable of thinking creatively more than ever.
We can’t afford to limit ourselves to comfortable or conventional habits. Or simply wait for crises to blow over before going back to normal.
I’m not a defence expert. For that I – as those in government – will defer to you, leaders in your respective services, to think and develop ways we can best contribute to a secure, open and stable Indo-Pacific.
But we are at an historic inflection point.
India may be one of the most successful developing countries in managing COVID.
Australia is on track to emerge from the crisis relatively strongly. Now is our opportunity to shape the post-COVID world together.
I know that Air Marshal Choudhury and the NDC Directing Staff will set Course 60 up for a year of stimulating strategic discussions, and I look forward to interacting with the course at other occasions during the year.
Thank you, and I invite your questions and observations.