High Commissioner's Remarks at the Ananta Aspen Centre
(check against delivery) 18 December 2020
Good morning everyone.
Thank you for the kind introduction, Govind. It’s a pleasure to be here today to deliver an address as part of the Aspen Ananta Centre’s Ambassador Series.
This gathering is a timely opportunity for me to reflect on the Australia-India relationship against the backdrop of a tumultuous year.
Today I have been asked to focus on Australia and India in the post-COVID world.
It won’t surprise you that I see Australia and India essential to each other in our post-COVD recovery.
So today I want to paint a broader picture of the contemporary Australia-India relationship and underline some often underappreciated characteristics of today’s ties.
My core assertion is that Australia and India have now, finally, found each other in an enduring and meaningful way.
This recognition opens a range of strategic and economic possibilities that will ensure our countries build a resilient, free and open region in the years to come.
So what’s changed to lead to this recognition?
Shared worldview: The Indo-Pacific
The first fundamental change is how our countries see the world.
Here I want to begin where my predecessor, Her Excellency Harinder Sidhu, left off, when she last spoke to the Ananta Aspen Centre in November 2018. In that speech, Her Excellency outlined why India had become a first tier partner of Australia, and why India should consider Australia as a top tier partner.
One of the fundamental trends Harinder pointed to was our strategic convergence: we both were starting to see the region in the same way.
That has only accelerated since 2018.
In the last three years we have seen Australia and India both outline positive visions for the Indo-Pacific, and we have our Southeast Asian neighbours adopt the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, outlined by Prime Minister Modi at the Shrangri-La Dialogue in 2018, is a vision Australia shares.
Just last weekend, I heard External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar say that the Indo-Pacific is a concept that represents a natural evolution for India given its expanding interests.
It is of a region that based on open trade, transparency, and a rules-based order where the rights of all states are respected. It is a region that recognises the centrality of ASEAN, and embraces our South Pacific family.
It’s also a region where Australia and India have important roles as security providers given our large exclusive economic zones and maritime search and rescue areas in the Indian Ocean.
In incudes strategic partners for both our nations, including the US, Japan, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand.
It’s a region that will define the 21st Century, a region predicated to deliver two thirds of the world’s growth and host six of the world’s ten biggest military spenders.
The Indo-Pacific is of immense significance now and for the future.
COVID-19 impact on the Indo-Pacific
But, as we are all acutely aware, the world is changing.
COVID-19 has accelerated many of the more worrying trends we face in the Indo-Pacific. At the community level, the pandemic is causing loss of lives and threatens to undermine the hard-won gains in development and economic growth.
Regionally, the pressures on rules, norms and institutions are becoming more acute.
Tensions over territorial claims across the region are rising, whether on the Line of Actual Control between India and China, in the South China Sea or the East China Sea.
The use of grey-zone and coercive tactics has grown.
And the US-China relationship – the region’s most important – is under strain. The decoupling of these vital economies is resulting in a lurch towards de-globalisation.
And the Indo-Pacific—a maritime domain—faces unique challenges that have only become more urgent, such as climate change, the health of oceans, and disaster resilience.
This past year has demonstrates we are living in a more complex strategic landscape where challenges are multi-layered and evolving at a faster pace. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that the impacts of current challenges are felt more quickly, more directly, and by more people, than ever before.
As the Prime Minister of Australia said earlier this year, we must prepare for a post-COVID world and Indo-Pacific that is, in his words ‘poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly’.
Deepening strategic ties
Yet, these pressures have also strengthened the gravitational pull between Australia and India. In face of the shocks of this past year, we see each other as the kind of friend we need.
While the world went into lockdown, we instead saw our bilateral relationship buck the global trend and accelerate.
It is not hyperbole to say Australia-India ties are at historic highs. A key pillar of this has been the acceleration in our strategic relationship.
June’s virtual summit between Prime Minister’s Modi and Morrison—India’s first bilateral virtual summit—cemented what has been a rapid deepening and broadening of the relationship. We elevated our ties to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and signed a series of high impact, practical agreements to advance strategic and economic cooperation.
This included agreeing to deepen our military cooperation through a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement – allowing more interoperability and requiring the kind of trust only shared between the closest of defence partners.
Some of you may recall the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement was one the ‘next steps’ my predecessor highlighted in her speech in 2018. What took other partners many years to agree on, Australia and India achieved in only a couple—reflecting that deep trust between our nations.
This builds on the remarkable step change in the defence relationship, with joint defence activities growing four-fold since 2014.
And, of course, in November we saw the return of Australia to Exercise Malabar. This exercise saw Australia, India, Japan and the United States conduct a series of high-end maritime activities, including night operations, air defence and anti-submarine exercises, and live gunnery exercises.
A highlight was the refuelling between Indian ships INS Shakti and Deepak and Australian HMAS Ballarat during both the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea phases of the Exercise. Such an exercise is a practical use of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement.
Another highlight was HMAS Ballarat’s port visit to Goa for refuelling and replenishment. I’m told the crew were delighted by the warm hospitality and the opportunity to join Diwali celebrations. It is these personal ties that add enduring depth to our partnership, building understanding and respect between personnel.
The undeniable success of Exercise Malabar tells a broader story of Australia, India, Japan and the US working together quadrilaterally, trilaterally, and bilaterally for a common purpose – to support a secure, open and inclusive region.
Growing our defence engagement with these important regional partners paves the way for deeper and more sophisticated cooperation, and enables us to conduct more complex bilateral engagements under our Comprehensive Strategic Patnership.
This leads me to the third acceleration in the Australia-India relationship: our strengthened partnerships across the world.
While COVID-19 has amplified worrying trends in our region, it has also enabled more agile, strategic and flexible coalitions.
Again, I’ll refer to External Affairs Minster Dr Jaishankar, who in his book The India Way articulates how such strategic alignments and interest-based coalitions are vital to navigating the messy world of today.
I see value in Dr Jaishankar’s vision as it underpins a vision of a networked architecture for the Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, and respectful of sovereign nations.
Australia and India recognise we can achieve this vision if we work collaboratively, combining our strengths with those of our partners like Japan, the US, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand.
A good example is our Australia-India trilateral dialogues with France, Indonesia and Japan.
These separate trilateral forums – each featuring Australia and India at the core – reflect that agility and flexibility, and hence, responsiveness and pragmatic outcomes, that Dr Jaishankar says is the ‘Indian Way’.
Japan and Indonesia are vital partners for both Australia and India. They are vibrant Asian democracies who help build an open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific. And likewise, France is a major player in the Indian Ocean and Pacific that can help build regional architecture and cooperation.
This year we’ve held a range of senior official and ministerial dialogues in these trilateral formats, and we expect the frequency of these to continue into 2021.
So what we’ve seen in our uncertain times is an acceleration in the India-Australia partnership, particularly in our deepening strategic ties, based on a shared positive vision for the Indo-Pacific, and enmeshed in a webbing of friendly regional coalitions.
Now if I turn to our economic relationship, we cannot deny that both our economies will take a battering this year.
While our economies have begun to recover, we are not likely to see higher rates of growth for some time.
Over the longer-term, however, the fundamentals to our economic relationship remain strong. Our economies are more complementary than they are competitive.
In the post-pandemic phase, Australia’s goods and services can support India’s growth and recovery. I want to focus on two sectors in particular—one very old, and very new.
The first sector is agriculture. The counter-seasonal supply of agricultural produce is a perfect example of how our economies complement each other.
Where there are shortfalls in India’s domestic production, Australian exports are able to meet India's demand for a wide variety of foods. Thanks to trade, consumers in India can enjoy Australian almonds, walnuts, and beer made from Australian malting barley, to name a few, throughout the year.
And this goes both ways. Australian consumers can likewise savour (the famous) Indian mangoes, table grapes and more recently, pomegranates during our off-season.
The second sector I want to highlight is emerging technologies. India is on track to become a world-leading manufacturer of renewable technology, electric vehicles, telecommunications and batteries. But manufacturing these technologies will require a reliable supply of critical resources such as lithium, cobalt and zircon.
And that’s where Australia can assist. Australia is home to some of the largest critical minerals reserves on the planet, and is can be a trusted and reliable supplier to fuel India’s technological revolution.
As part of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, we inked a new deal to cooperate on the supply and processing of these inputs so crucial to technological development.
Agriculture and critical minerals are just two areas of enormous potential. Other sectors of promise that will benefit both our countries include education, infrastructure, health, and advanced information technology services, such as cybersecurity.
Supply chains and investment
The reason I focus on agriculture and critical and emerging technologies is because they are two sectors that require reliable supply chains built on trusted investment relationships.
COVID-19 shone a light on the risks of overdependence on a single market for both suppliers and customers. Businesses’ are now looking to manage those risks through market diversification and supply chain resilience.
We need to be realistic: supply lines take time to shift. There won’t be a sudden surge in investment. However, there have been several notable investments into India’s growing e-commerce sector this year, proof that some of the world’s largest companies have confidence in India.
This signal has been noticed by other companies, particularly those in Australia.
And Australia is well-placed to support India’s investment needs. Australia finished 2019 with the world’s fourth-largest pension (or as we call them, superannuation) funds market in the world, valued at AUD 2.95 trillion (INR 150 lakh crore).
Recently, we hosted some of Australia's largest investment funds - collectively managing assets of more than AUD 736 billion (INR 38 lakh crore) – in exploring investment opportunities in India with the National Infrastructure and Investment Fund.
So there is growing recognition among Australian businesses that over the long term, India’s economy is destined for considerable growth across a range of sectors. And we welcome further reforms to increase investment attractiveness and ease of doing business in India.
So despite COVID-19, the fundamentals to our growing economic and commercial relationship remain strong, and will be essential in supporting our economies rebound from the pandemic.
Where to next?
So in the post-pandemic world, we can expect Australia and India to continue to build stronger strategic and economic links because as this year has reminded us, in both domains we’re stronger together.
It’s impossible to cover the sheer breadth and potential of our relationship in one speech, but I do want to flag two emerging opportunities that I suspect, if not me, then my successors in years to come will increasingly highlight in the Australia-India relationship.
The first involves Australia and India coordinating and cooperating more as we assist our regional partners emerge from pandemic.
In particular, an immediate priority will be vaccine deployment.
Australia has invested hundreds of millions into securing vaccines for our South Pacific and Southeast Asian neighbours, just as India has for its immediate neighbourhood.
But it is only India that has the manufacturing capacity to produce sufficient quantities of the vaccine to satisfy the global demand.
So we will be vital partners in ensuring the healthy recovery of our region.
The second area is cooperation on climate change. Together, Australia and India are making substantial efforts to mitigate and adapt through developing renewable technologies, building energy resilience, and increasing cooperation in humanitarian and disaster relief.
Australia is proud to be a founding member and major supporter of both the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.
These new, Indian-led institutions are quickly maturing, and hold immense potential to building regional energy and infrastructure resilience. These organisations will only grow in importance in coming years.
Let me close by reflecting on the Australia-India relationship through pop culture.
For those yet to see it, I recommend Netflix’s recent (cringe-worthy) ‘documentary’, Indian Matchmaking. For better or worse, I can report this was popular viewing in Australia this year. In the series, we follow the work of matchmaker Sima Taparia from Mumbai. Her first question in meeting prospective brides and grooms is the criteria each is looking for in a partner.
Now let me use this as an analogy for the Australia-India relationship.
If asked the criteria for an ideal partner at this time of economic uncertainty, great power competition, and growing authoritarianism, I would think Australia would be looking for someone young, dynamic, resilient, democratic, and from our region. Someone who appreciates what you have to offer them in trade and investment. And someone to watch the cricket with!
And if you asked India, I think it would be looking for a partner who is reliable, trustworthy, and also democratic and resilient. Someone who understands and shares the same vision for the region. Someone who supports you and wants you to achieve your potential. And someone to watch the cricket with!
So, if I was a Matchmaker, I would see the Australia-India relationship as the perfect match. May it be long and prosperous.
Thank you. I look forward to taking some questions.