• The Hon Mr Barry O’Farrell AO

Australia: A friend for these times

Irresistible forces are bringing India and Australia closer together. One in every 50 Australians is of Indian origin. We share an ocean, and Perth is a seven hour flight away from Chennai. Defence activities grew four-fold between 2014 and 2019, with Australian and Indian defence forces conducting 46 exercises together last year. India is an important trading partner to Australia, our eighth largest with two-way goods and services trade valued at approximately Rs 1.5 lakh crore (AUD29.3 billion) in 2019.

On 4 June 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in India’s first ever bilateral virtual leaders’ summit with Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Right from the top, Australia and India share a warm relationship. Prime Minister Morrison shared pictures of his home-made samosas ahead of the virtual summit, and promised to try Gujarati khichdi next time. And more substantively, the two leaders signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), placing India in the front rank of Australia’s partnerships.

Australia and India have never been closer friends. It is a friendship with depth, marked by what I call the four Ds – democracy, defence, diaspora and dosti.

The blossoming of this friendship is happening against a backdrop of a changing strategic landscape. Economists have been tracking the shift of global wealth from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific for decades. Now, the Indo-Pacific is witnessing a period of strategic rebalancing. Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update recognised that major power competition, coercion and military modernisation in the Indo-Pacific are increasing the potential for and consequences of miscalculation. The COVID-19 pandemic is creating even more uncertainty. Globally, the rules, norms and institutions that help maintain peace and security and guide global cooperation are under strain.

Australia and India have a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific. Both are united in their commitment to an open, free, rules-based region; a region supported by inclusive global and regional institutions that promote prosperous, stable and sovereign states based on shared interest. It is vital that in today’s strategic context, like-minded democracies like Australia and India continue to uphold the fundamental democratic values in the multilateral system and work together. Might cannot mean right.

Australia is a strong supporter of India on the international stage. Voices like India’s need more prominence and multilateral institutions must evolve to be more representative of the modern world. Australia supports India becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, as well as India joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group and efforts to expand the G7.

We must also energise and coordinate our efforts to defend the global liberal order through new modes of cooperation. This includes the Quad, as well as recent Indian-led initiatives like the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and the International Solar Alliance, both of which Australia was a strong and early backer.

Australia has welcomed India’s global leadership through the COVID-19 crisis. In advocating for the role of the G20, convening a SAARC leaders meeting and being an early and strong proponent of WHO reform, Prime Minister Modi’s Government has been one of the world leaders looking to international cooperation to find solutions to the pandemic and its consequences.

In the maritime domain, PM Modi and PM Morrison underscored Australia and India’s shared strategic outlook in the recently signed Joint Declaration on a Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation. It affirmed both countries’ enduring interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as open, safe and efficient sea-lanes for transportation and communication. As democracies, both nations understand how a free, open, inclusive and rules-based region matters in everyday lives. They are necessary conditions to allow private enterprise to thrive, economic benefits to accumulate to individuals and all countries to compete in markets on an equal footing.

Strong strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and on global issues through multilateral institutions will bind and deepen the Australia-India partnership long into the 21st century. 

Bilaterally, the 4 June Leaders’ Summit outlined a path forward for practical cooperation. Besides the CSP, eight other agreements were signed in areas ranging from defence research and cyber technology to public administration and skills education. The breadth of these issues is testament to the expanding Australia-India partnership.

Cyber, critical minerals and water management are just three illustrative examples of this growing engagement.

Under a new agreement on cyber and cyber-enabled technologies, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics, Australia and India will cooperate to promote and preserve an open, free, safe and secure internet. The agreement sets out practical actions to enhance digital trade, harness critical technology opportunities and address cyber security challenges. For example, a Rs 66 crore (AUD 12.7 million) research and development fund will be available for Indian and Australian businesses and researchers. And India and Australia will support other countries to improve their cyber resilience.

The internet lies at the heart of most modern businesses and is a critical enabler to growth. But at the same time, governments, businesses and individuals around the world are reporting increasing incidences of malicious cyber activity, including by foreign states. So it is particularly important now to ensure that the internet does not present risks to security, liberty or prosperity. Australia, in response, has just announced a record boost to cyber security spending – more than Rs 7000 crore (AUD1.35 billion) to build cyber resilience and recruit 500 new cyber experts.

On critical minerals, India and Australia inked a new deal to cooperate on the supply and processing of these inputs so crucial to technological development. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of global supply chains and the risks of over-exposure to single markets. Australia has some of the largest critical minerals reserves on the planet, including antimony, lithium, rare earth elements and tantalum. In support of India’s ‘Make in India’ program and its goal of moving to full electric mobility by 2030, Australia has the potential to be one of the top suppliers of lithium, cobalt and zircon to India.

Both India and Australia face water scarcity – an issue that impacts lives and livelihoods on a daily basis. And as a result, both have been cooperating on water management for over a decade. This was given a boost with the renewal of an agreement to enhance policy and technical cooperation, including on river basin planning, groundwater management, irrigation efficiency and water sensitive urban design. This work is particularly important in the context of climate change. Through close collaboration we will improve our water use across sectors, from agriculture to city planning.

I could go on – skills education, tourism, agriculture, public administration and governance or defence research.

Reinforcing these specific areas of cooperation, Australia continues to champion greater economic openness and adherence to rules and norms. These are values that have underpinned the economic growth which has transformed human development outcomes in the Indo-Pacific for decades.

Our Prime Ministers committed to re-engage on a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement at the Virtual Summit. Increasing trade across sectors will help deliver an enhanced partnership, increased business-to-business confidence and pave the way for greater investment.

The Australia-India relationship is broad, substantive and growing.

We are a close friend of India, and an important partner. While Australia’s population would make it only India’s 19th largest state, this size belies Australia’s strategic, economic and cultural heft. Australia is the twelfth largest contributor to the United Nations regular budget while Australia’s search and rescue region comprises ten per cent of the earth’s surface. Australia has the world’s sixth largest pool of investment funds under management, is the number one global exporter of iron ore, coal and wool and has the third highest number of universities in the world’s top 100.

A strong India-Australia partnership, based on a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific, is important during uncertain times. The growing warmth, trust and practical cooperation between both countries will serve the region well into the future. Australia is a friend for these times.

(The Hon Mr. Barry O'Farrell AO is the Australian High Commissioner to India. He served in the Parliament of New South Wales from 1995 to 2015, including as the State’s 43rd Premier between 2011 and 2014. As Premier, Mr O’Farrell initiated and led annual trade missions to India to promote economic, cultural and social links between New South Wales and the states of India. He has also served as NSW’s Special Envoy for India and has made a significant contribution as the Deputy Chair of the Australia India Council Board).


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