Address to the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia
New Delhi, 29 July 2016
HE Harinder Sidhu, Australian High Commissioner to India
Thank you Venkat (Narayan, President) for your kind introduction.
I am delighted to be here today at the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia, the hub of foreign correspondents covering the region and for the Indian media.
I have been here as High Commissioner since April.
Since arriving, I have been impressed by the spread and diversity of the Indian media and by the coverage and quality of debate on national and international issues.
The sheer numbers are impressive - 830 TV channels, and around 400 news channels.
The vast print media in India – over 105,000 registered publications – is bucking global trends and thriving.
And India also retains a robust social and online media with new current affairs portals appearing almost monthly.
I have really enjoyed the experience of getting my own Twitter feed (@AusHCIndia) up and running and engaging with Indians on our activities and policies. These technologies are really speeding up the way that both journalism and diplomacy work.
Diplomats are perhaps the greatest champions of the work of foreign correspondents. We truly appreciate the work you all do reporting news in sometimes dangerous situations – from the earthquake in Nepal last year to the recent appalling attacks in Dhaka and the ongoing unrest in Kashmir.
The work of making and implementing foreign policy would be all the harder without the information and insights you, as foreign correspondents, bring.
So, let me start with a few observations of the strategic picture as we see it from Australia and as it relates to India.
SHARED STRATEGIC INTERESTS
While Australia and India have had a long history together, it was only in 2009 that we elevated our relationship to the level of a Strategic Partnership. And since the reciprocal visits of Prime Ministers in 2014, we have seen our strategic relationship deepen dramatically.
Underlying this is a strong sense of common purpose.
We are both maritime nations and see much of the future in the regional seas. We both want effective and strong regional architecture that can encourage conversation between states and pre-empt problems before they become significant.
Australia and India are both grappling with new forms of terrorism and how to manage these asymmetric threats, both from a security but also a social perspective.
We are both committed to a non-proliferating world – and Australia wants to see India become a member of the four export control regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India has the credentials for membership and we trust in those. This is reflected in our recent entry into force of our Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement which will support India’s growing energy needs.
We are both committed to a stable region and actively contribute to peace keeping missions globally. Last year we also held our first bilateral maritime naval exercises to better understand how we could work together in times of need.
And our view of the region as a strategic system is gradually coming into alignment.
Australia’s focus for several decades has been on Asia, where our core economic and strategic interests lie – and where any disruption to our peace and prosperity would likely occur.
Traditionally our concept of Asia has focused on the Asia Pacific incorporating the United States, North and South East Asia, and the South Pacific.
More recently we have adopted the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. This makes sense for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it brings India into the strategic frame of the region and recognises its greater involvement in East Asian affairs.
Second, it 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.
This term has also entered the Indian lexicon. Prime Minister Modi, External Affairs Minister Swaraj and Foreign Secretary Jaishankar have all referenced the Indo-Pacific in recent statements. Defence Minister Parrikar most recently spoke of the Indo-Pacific at the last Shangri La Dialogue in June.
There may be nuances between us regarding where this strategic arc begins and ends, but broadly speaking, we now share a similar view of the whole.
Institutions, and what we in the foreign policy world call “architecture,” is how we put these shared interests into practice.
One important institution is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which is emerging as a significant cross-regional body. It is building links among Indian Ocean nations on maritime safety and security, trade, disaster risk management and tourism and cultural exchanges, among other issues. Most significantly, it has adopted the empowerment of women and girls as a cross cutting issue across all its work.
From Australia’s strategic perspective, the East Asia Summit is the regional institution which has the highest priority and the most potential. Its members account for 55 per cent of global GDP and over half the global population. And it includes all the major powers in the Indo-Pacific region.
A core objective of the EAS should be to promote consultation across the region. Consultation might not resolve problems but it can make the search for solutions easier and diminish the risk of miscommunication and miscalculation.
SOUTH CHINA SEA DECISION
In the current South China Sea dispute, we are indeed in a phase where sensible calculations and restraint matter.
The ruling handed down by the Arbitral Tribunal earlier this month clarified maritime rights in the South China Sea.
Australia’s position on this has been consistent and clear. We don’t take sides on competing territorial claims but we have strong interests in regional peace and stability and respect for international law.
Our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has called on the Philippines and China to abide by the ruling, which is final and legally binding.
I note that India’s Ministry of External Affairs has urged all parties to show utmost respect for UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas.
Looking ahead, we hope that all claimants take this opportunity to re-engage in dialogue based on greater clarity of maritime rights, and bring their claims into line with international law.
It has been estimated that 60 percent of Australia’s trade passes through the waters of the South China Sea. Some 50 percent of India’s trade passes through the Malacca Straits and then northwards. So the waters of this region are a shared resource for safe trade and form part of the global commons that we must strive to protect.
Like India and many others, we will watch with great interest how the Philippines and China respond to the outcome. This arbitration is a test case for how our region can manage disputes peacefully, in accordance with international law.
And India demonstrated its own commitment to that law in 2014 by submitting to the jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the sea boundary with Bangladesh.
Abiding by this ruling, India lost over 19,000 square kilometres of sea area in the Bay of Bengal. What was at stake was something much greater – the collective commitment to international principles and respect for the laws that protects us all.
INDIA AND AUSTRALIA – WORKING TOGETHER
Just as India and Australia share strategic interests in the region, we also look for increased economic interaction.
Today India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. Australia’s is one of the strongest. We are the world’s 12th largest economy and are now in the 25th consecutive year of positive growth. We have significant strengths in mining, agriculture, technology and services.
India’s appetite for energy, its ambition to upskill half a billion people, its rapidly growing middle class and its shift to a more resource intensive manufacturing sector and a larger services sector all present significant opportunities for us to work together. We can build partnerships in areas as diverse as water management, space science and cyber.
Our bilateral trade and investment relationship is strong. With two-way trade valued at around $A20 billion (approx. 100,000 crore rupees), India is Australia’s 9th largest trading partner and 5th largest export market.
However I believe there is much more scope to expand both the size and range of our trade. Our bilateral trade with India is only a little over one-tenth of our trade with China, a comparable sized market. And it is still very narrowly based. Over 75% of Australia’s goods exports to India are concentrated in just three commodities – coal, gold and copper ores.
Yet below this there is an incredibly dynamic economic relationship, particularly in services. Education and skills is one area that we are still rapidly expanding. Last year, 53,000 Indians studied in Australia, making India the second largest source of overseas students for Australia. The same goes for tourism. 233,000 Indians visited Australia in 2015, making India our eighth largest source of visitors. The growing Indian middle class is increasingly interested in Australian products – particularly wine.
On the flip side, India is Australia’s 13th largest source of imports. Indian exports to Australia are dominated by refined petroleum, pharmaceuticals, jewellery and textile and clothing products.
Concluding the bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement – or CECA – will be a positive step. This FTA promises to deliver substantial benefit to both countries, allowing us to meet at least some of the unfulfilled potential in our bilateral economic relationship.
We have made great progress on the CECA negotiations to date. Now that Australia’s elections are over, we have the opportunity to consider our next steps in this negotiation.
More broadly, it will be important for India to have a regional voice commensurate with its size and economic weight. Australia supports India’s growing participation in the economic architecture of the region.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - RCEP - provides an ideal forum in which India can contribute to shaping and influencing the rules governing trade and investment in the region. Australia is keen to work with India to achieve a sufficiently ambitious RCEP outcome.
BUILDING UNDERSTANDING AND SHARED VALUES
All this interaction is a positive and good thing. But relationships between countries are not unlike relationships between people. To be enduring and remain steady through ups and downs, it needs to be built on shared values and mutual understanding.
Australia and India have much in common. We both have very long coastlines that press into the Indian Ocean. In fact we were once joined at the hip in the mega continent of Gondwana – as a result we share much of the same mineral wealth.
At the most fundamental level, Australia and India are both liberal democracies which share a commitment to the rule of law, fundamental human rights and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
We both value diversity and tolerance. India is home to an incredible diversity of ethnicities, languages, religions and customs. Australia has built a highly successful multicultural society which lies at the heart of our dynamism as a nation.
And I would be remiss not to mention our mutual love of cricket!
But it is the dramatic growth in people-to-people links over recent years which I believe will build understanding and sustain the relationship over the long term.
The numbers of Indian-born Australians has tripled over the past decade. Almost half a million of Australia’s 24 million citizens are now of Indian origin.
Hinduism is the fastest growing religion in Australia, and Punjabi is the fastest growing language.
I have just returned from a visit to the Punjab where I was overwhelmed by peoples’ interest in my own heritage, how much of the local language I spoke and what I knew of the culture. It’s clear that our people want to connect with each other on cultural lines. And we know that when people connect, countries connect.
Our past Australian correspondents in New Delhi have taken a much deeper cultural interest in India than you might expect. Many of them have become authors, wanting to delve more deeply into the society than perhaps their journalism allowed.
Hamish McDonald, formerly of the Sydney Morning Herald and now with The Saturday Paper, wrote The Polyester Prince on the impressive rise of the Reliance group.
John Zubrzycki moved easily between diplomacy and journalism and penned The Last Nizam, which told the extraordinary story of the last ruler of Hyderabad moving to an Australian sheep station.
ABC Correspondent Christopher Kremmer wrote of his experience of dramatic change in India through the 1990s, in Inhaling the Mahatma.
And finally, Holy Cow by ABC radio journalist Sarah McDonald [who was accompanying her ABC correspondent partner Jonathan Harley] has become a best seller in Australia. The range of these writings displays the broad interest in Australia on all things India.
I really do see the exchange of ideas and connections between people as the bedrock of the relationship, which will keep it steady and strong through the ebb and flow of our bilateral engagement.
It used to be said that Australia discovered India anew every 20 years or so. It also used to be said that we were bound by the three ‘C’s’ of cricket, curry and the Commonwealth.
I think the evidence shows that those statements no longer apply.
There is now enormous potential for Australia and India to take our bilateral relationship to a new level. The growth in our strategic and people links over the past decade forms a strong foundation to achieve an enduring partnership. And we are on the way to building a deep and robust economic relationship.
We may be vastly different size wise – the Indian Railways moves 23 million people around the country every day. This is close to the population of Australia! It’s a mind boggling figure.
Despite such massive differences in scale, it will be our sense of shared interests and values that will continue to drive our relationship forward and hopefully contribute to a more stable region.
I, for one, am looking forward to the journey.
[Thanks and open for questions]