Australian High Commission
New Delhi
India, Bhutan

Speech at the Asia Society, Mumbai



(Check against delivery)


Thank you for inviting me to speak.  I’m delighted to be here on my first official visit to Mumbai since formally assuming my role as High Commissioner. 


It is usual for a newly-arrived Ambassador, to put forward a view of the bilateral relationship.  After all, that is what we are about.  But, while I will of course speak on the Australia-India relationship, there are good reasons why I have chosen today to speak more broadly at first about how Australia sees Asia.

I have been struck since arriving in India some 6 weeks ago, at the certainty with which Indians see Australia as a ‘Western’ – in the sense of ‘European’ – nation.  This sits at odds with how Australians now see themselves –increasingly as a part of Asia, if not an ‘Asian’ nation in the strict sense of the word. 

So I thought I would seek to put some nuance into this question and talk about how Australia sees Asia. 

In many ways, this is as much a story about how Australia sees itself.  It is a story about the tension that continues to this day between Australia’s history and its geography.  Like India, Australia’s colonial history has defined us.  And also like India, we have, since becoming an independent nation at Federation in 1901, begun to define ourselves and to make our own future.  For us, that future lies in Asia.

A bit of history

If we go back a century or so, it would be fair to say that Australia was deeply and closely connected to Europe.  And more specifically to the United Kingdom.  Even though Australia had been home to Asian migrants and settlers since the early 19th Century, it still saw itself as an outpost of the UK. 

In 1900, the UK was Australia’s primary trading partner.  Our trade with the UK was over five times greater than with our next largest trading partner, the United States of America.  And our other major trading partners were either European countries or other members of the British Empire.  Asia simply did not figure. 

For most of the twentieth century, our view of Asia was governed chiefly by strategic anxiety.  Australians saw ourselves as vulnerable - a thinly-populated land mass surrounded by heavily populated, poor and unstable countries to our north.  Attacks on Australia by Japanese forces during the Second World War reinforced these concerns, as did our experiences of Asia during the Cold War years – Konfrontasi in Indonesia; the Vietnam War and the Malayan Emergency.

But even then, there were some who saw the importance of Asia for Australia.  An early visionary, former Foreign Minister of Australia, Sir Percy Spender, said in 1950 of Australia’s place in the world:

Geographically Australia is next door to Asia and our destiny as a nation is irrevocably conditioned by what takes place in Asia.  This means that our future depends, to an increasing degree, on the political stability of our Asian neighbours, on the economic wellbeing of Asian people and upon the development of understanding and friendly relations between Australia and Asia…It is therefore in Asia and the Pacific that Australia should make its primary effort in the field of foreign relations.

Becoming a part of Asia

Since Sir Percy said those words, successive Australian governments worked to establish closer relations with Asia.  In 1972, Australia established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, setting the foundation for the strength of the economic relationship we have today.  People-to-people links began to grow.  From the 1950s the Colombo Plan brought over 40,000 students from our region to study and live in Australia.

Australia began to engage more deeply on Asian institutional architecture.  In 1989, during a visit to the Republic of Korea, Prime Minister Bob Hawke publicly launched the concept of APEC.  Developed in tandem with Japan, APEC envisaged the creation of a consultative framework for economic cooperation, intergovernmental dialogue and interaction for the region. 

By the time Mr Hawke made this announcement, over half of new immigrants to Australia were coming from Asia; and most of Australia’s trade took place with Asia.

With closer economic engagement has come more confidence in security engagement.  In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Paul Keating was able to put forward the proposition that:

You see, psychologically, Australia must understand it has to live in the region around it.  Australia must find its security in Asia;  it cannot find its security from Asia.

These words summarised the triumph of geography over history in Australia’s relations with Asia.  And they were met with actions.  In 1994, Australia joined the ASEAN Regional Forum; and in 1995, the Keating Government announced the successful negotiation of a formal agreement on joint security between Australia and Indonesia.

Where we are today

Asia today is a different place to the one that Sir Percy described.  In the past 20 years, China and India have almost tripled their share of the global economy and increased their absolute economic size almost six times over.  By 2025, the region as a whole will account for almost half the world’s output.  And will also be home to the majority of the world’s middle class.

We are now enmeshed in Asia.  Today, Australia’s top 5 trading partners are (in order) – China, Japan, the United States, Korea and Singapore.  The Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has defined Australia’s six most important relationships as with China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, India and the United States (not in order).  And five of the top 10 source countries for Australia’s resident population are Asian. 

Australia is now an active player in Asia, particularly in trade and regional security. We have FTAs with most Asian countries. We are the fourth largest economy in Asia (after China, Japan and India) and the second largest in per capita income (after Singapore and Brunei).

Looking North

In thinking about Asia, Australia has traditionally looked north.  Economic opportunity and security preoccupation have drawn us there.  As a result, we now have mature relationships with Japan and Korea.  And despite the ups and downs that close neighbours inevitably experience, our relationship with Indonesia has deepened into a significant and respectful partnership. 

Australia has a huge stake in the success of China’s economic transition and the opportunities it brings.  We have been a great beneficiary of China’s economic success.  It is our largest trading partner by far – at over $A150 billion, two way trade with China dwarfs the value of trade with any other country.  Trade with Japan, our second largest trading partner, is valued at less than half that amount ($A70 billion).

China’s rise raises questions about its strategic behaviour.  It has every right to seek greater strategic influence to match its economic weight.  The question is whether it will adhere to the existing order or seek to overthrow it and replace it with new institutions.  The answer is that it will probably be a combination of both. 

Australia’s recent Defence White Paper recognised that our strategic objectives include supporting the security of maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.  The economic success of our region has depended on a long period of relative stability.

It is undeniable that China’s actions in the South China Sea are causing concern and raising tensions among its neighbours.  We do not express a view on the merits of the various territorial claims, but we firmly believe that these should be resolved in accordance with international law and not by unilateral actions on the ground. 

What we would like to see is a China which is an active contributor to the evolving regional security architecture, including in the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting.

In our view, a positive relationship between the US and China will also be central to maintaining peace and prosperity in the region.  The US and China share significant interests in the region, for example on economic integration, free and open trade, counter piracy and humanitarian and disaster relief.

India and the Indo-Pacific

Australia will continue to look North.  But increasingly, we are also looking West. 

As India has grown in economic and strategic significance, Australia has also evolved its view of Asia.  We now describe the region as the “Indo-Pacific”.  This phrase captures a number of ideas. 

First, it brings India into the strategic frame of the region.  This reflects India’s greater involvement in East Asian affairs, both directly and also institutionally through the East Asian Summit. 

Second, the Indo-Pacific is a maritime concept, and captures better our sense that the big strategic issues going forward will be maritime.  Continued economic prosperity in Asia relies on maritime stability and keeping open sea lanes which are vital for trade.

And finally, by linking the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Indo-Pacific construct makes sense and recognises Australia’s distinctive geo-strategic position as a continent which faces both oceans.

I would be remiss not to make some points about the Australia-India bilateral relationship.  Standing here as a freshly-minted High Commissioner, I can already see that we have left the old “Commonwealth, curry and cricket” construct behind.  I have said that we now define India as among our top 6 bilateral relationships.  Our attention span when it came to India in the past used to be fairly short – it used to be said that Australia rediscovered India every 20 years or so.  So is the current interest in India similarly fleeting?

I think not.

There are good reasons to think we are seeing an upswing in the bilateral relationship that will be enduring. 

First, our economies are highly complementary.  India’s economic growth will require the sorts of things that Australia can supply.  This will mean significant quantities of raw materials – coal, gas and minerals.  But it will also mean technology, services and expertise.  We are already seeing the relationships to support this economic growth being developed.  The interest by Australian businesses in India is very strong, and it has now grown to become our 5th largest export market globally.

But trade is still very narrow – 70% of Australian exports to India comprise only two items – coal and gold.  If we are to build depth to our economic relationship, we need to broaden its base.  This is why we are negotiating a CECA, which will support the freer flow particularly of services and investment between our two countries.

Second, the growth in Australia’s Indian population in recent years will anchor and help sustain both economic and political interest in India for the foreseeable future.  The numbers of Indian-born Australians has tripled in the past decade, and in 2014-15, India was the largest source of new migrants to Australia.  Punjabi is the fastest growing language in Australia, and Hinduism the fastest growing religion. There are now over 53,000 Indian students in Australia, representing our second largest intake of international students after China.

Third, we share strategic interests in Asia.  We are both maritime nations for whom regional stability is of paramount importance.  We recognised this in concluding a Framework for Security Cooperation in 2014, against which we have now conducted our first bilateral naval exercise, as well as talks on counter-terrorism, cyber and non-proliferation.  We cooperate actively and well in the EAS and in IORA and Australia supports Indian membership of APEC and aspirations to become a permanent member of the UNSC.

Finally, more than perhaps any other country in Asia, our values are closely aligned.  My predecessor and our current Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese defined Australian values succinctly as follows:

Australia’s liberal democratic, secular and multicultural character is fundamental to our sense of self…Our values are the values of an open society.  We believe that freedom is best advanced when we nurture an environment where ideas can flourish, where contending philosophies have to make their case in the marketplace of ideas and where those who govern are held accountable to the governed.

These are also values that Indians hold dear.  Democracy, liberty, the rule of law, human rights and freedom of expression are cornerstones of the societies we have built. Amartya Sen calls it the “Argumentative Indian”.  For others, it has to do with India’s attachment to democracy.  Whatever the analysis, it is clear that when Australians and Indians meet, they have little need for translation.  And that is a good basis for any relationship.


India is now dealing with an Australia that is very far removed from the Euro- and Anglo-centric country I described at the start of this address.  We have had the good fortune to have clear-sighted leaders who have driven Australian openness to and engagement in Asia.  This has served us well.

The Australia-India relationship has developed rapidly in recent years.  This has occurred in a context where Australia is far more Asia-literate than it has ever been in its history. 

Just this week, for example, our Prime Minister will be taking a delegation of over 1000 businesspeople on his first official visit to China – the largest business delegation ever to travel from Australia.  It will not be the first time many of these travel there.  Australian businesses have invested a great deal in China – they are familiar with its business customs and systems and have built mutually beneficial relationships.  They are there because they have made the judgement they cannot afford not to be.

I say this by way of demonstrating just how comfortable Australia is in Asia. 

We have all the ingredients, therefore, of a stronger Australia-India relationship.  I have no doubt that our two countries can build a deep and broad relationship and one that is unique in Asia, given our shared history, views and interests. That is the task before us now.

Thank you.