COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific Region: Perspectives from India and Australia
High Commissioner Mr Barry O'Farrell AO's address at JNU
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Thank you Professor Mattoo for the kind introduction.
It is a real honour to be here with the School of International Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific as seen from India and Australia.
The School of International Studies is well-known, not only for its contribution to public policy here in India, but also to the study of international relations across the world.
I also want to acknowledge Professor Mattoo’s contribution to India-Australia relations through various positions, including in the Australian university sector and the Australia-India Institute.
It is a great opportunity for me today to provide some thoughts about a topic of vital to importance to the Australian government.
What I propose is to share with you my assessment of what COVID-19 has meant for the Indo-Pacific, how India and Australia have responded and where I think you will see Australia and India work together, along with others, to shape the region we want to live in.
The Indo-Pacific – Australia’s perspective
But before I look at the impacts of COVID-19, I want to say a few words about the Indo-Pacific.
For Australia, the Indo-Pacific is our region, it’s where we live.
It comprises the Indian Ocean region, which is vital for Australia’s trade and energy security and where we have an important role as a security provider given our large exclusive economic zone and maritime search and rescue area.
It has ASEAN at its core and embraces our South Pacific family.
It includes our strategic partners: the US, Japan, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand.
We think India’s contribution to the region is essential.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, Prime Minister Modi outlined India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific which included open trade, transparency, a rules-based order where the rights of all states was respected and a central role for ASEAN. Australia couldn’t agree more.
I was also struck by what former Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had to say about the Indo-Pacific at Raisina Dialogue 2020. He said it spoke to the reality of Asia which existed before colonialism; colonialism which had created artificial barriers between South and Southeast Asia.
And since I have been in India, I have been fascinated to learn more about India’s close historical ties with Southeast Asia. Almost every country in the region has adopted the Indian epic – Ramayana.
And the links were not just cultural or religious: India had close trade ties as early as the 3rd century based on relationships built on peace and partnership, reflecting the same values we share for the region today.
In many ways, the Indo-Pacific is a natural bridge between Australia and India. Australia and India are quintessential Indo-Pacific countries. Australia plays a strong role in the South Pacific, as India does in South Asia. And we converge in Southeast Asia where we are both important partners for ASEAN.
The Indo-Pacific is of immense significance for now and the future.
The migration of power and influence from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific is the defining feature of this century. Our region predicted to deliver two thirds of the world’s growth. And it is home to six of the world’s ten biggest military spenders.
COVID-19’s impact on the Indo-Pacific
But COVID-19 has accelerated many of the worrying trends we have been facing in the Indo-Pacific for some time.
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.
The US-China relationship – the region’s most important – is under further strain. The region is increasingly the focus of the dominant global contest of our age.
The COVID pandemic is causing loss of lives and threatens to undermine the hard-won gains in development and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific.
As the Prime Minister of Australia said recently, even as we grapple with the pandemic in each of our countries, we must prepare for a post-COVID world and Indo-Pacific that is, in his words ‘poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly’.
What has been India’s response?
My tenure here in New Delhi has coincided with the COVID-19 crisis and I have had the opportunity to observe India’s leadership role up close.
Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar have been impressive in their outreach during the crisis, coordinating with key partners across world capitals, including South Asia, ASEAN and East Asia.
I welcomed India’s regional leadership in convening a SAARC virtual summit and establishing a SAARC emergency COVID-19 fund.
India has displayed its contribution to the public good by quickly deploying medical teams, medicines and equipment across the region.
I have been struck by Modi and Jaishankar’s practical and sagacious leadership and calls to increase global cooperation through the crisis. In their speeches to the Non-Aligned Movement Summit and the Alliance for Multilateral meeting, both highlighted our need to strengthen institutions and cooperation for the common good.
This is the only way we can emerge from this crisis.
It Australia’s view too that we cannot simply be a bystander.
All of us have agency to shape developments in the Indo-Pacific – not only the US and China.
As India has shown, we think it’s important to step up and advocate for the type of region that we seek for our neighbourhood.
Australia wants an Indo-Pacific where:
- rules and norms provide for peace and the ability for people to prosper;
- open markets, rules and cooperation lead to greater economic integration and growth; and
- we are all more resilient to economic and security challenges through our work together, whether on health security, counter-terrorism, cyber security, resilient supply chains, infrastructure development or maritime security.
Australia is advancing these goals in a number of ways.
First, we are promoting economic growth and development outcomes.
We have introduced a number of measures during COVID to support our workers and keep our own economy strong and productive – because at the end of the day, our ability to keep our citizens safe and contribute to the Indo-Pacific is underpinned by a strong economy.
To buttress this, we continue to push for 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.
When it comes to India, Australia welcomes the opportunity to re-engage on a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India, an outcome from the Virtual Summit between our Prime Ministers on 4 June.
Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, I was pleased to see the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement commence on 5 July. It is great we were able to secure an agreement which will help both countries grow jobs and put us on a path to recovery from COVID-19.
We have also reprioritised our Australian $4 billion annual aid program towards the Indo-Pacific, helping countries across the region respond to the pandemic, build resilience and recover economically.
Second, we are contributing to a free, open and inclusive order and balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
The Australian government has announced a 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan which boosts investment in our defence capabilities by 40 per cent from our previous review in 2016. It entails new investments in land, sea and air-based long range and hypersonic strike missiles.
This comes on top of what is already the biggest regeneration of our Navy since the Second World War and the transition to a fifth-generation Air Force. We’ve also made the largest investment in Australia’s cyber security capabilities in our history in the past month.
These investments are guided by Australia’s assessment that we must be able to more effectively shape, deter and respond to the increased challenges we face in the Indo-Pacific, most particularly in the Northeast Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
We also are busy working through ASEAN-led institutions, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Pacific Islands Forum and related bodies to develop common understanding and shared regional approaches to maritime safety and security, health and technology.
And in these lines of effort we have been working more closely than ever before with our partners – India, the US, Japan, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand. Cooperation has been at an all time high.
The ‘Quad’ is becoming an increasingly useful mechanism for strengthening shared interests in maritime security, counter-terrorism and cyber security—and during the current crisis issues like reliable supply chains and global and regional health challenges.
We are working closely in trilateral settings with India and Japan, and India and Indonesia, to promote economic growth and inclusive regional approaches to shared challenges across the Indo-Pacific.
Japan and Indonesia are lynchpins.
They are vibrant Asian democracies and vital partners for New Delhi and Canberra in shaping a more open, secure and more prosperous Indo-Pacific.
From the Indo-Pacific to the wider world, the Australian Government has recognised the challenges we face to multilateral cooperation means new approaches are needed to ensure international institutions deliver for all.
My government recently concluded an audit of the multilateral system which recommended Australia shape institutions that are:
- fit for purpose;
- accountable to member states;
- free from undue influence; and
- have an appropriately strong focus on the Indo-Pacific.
As our Foreign Minister recently observed, Australia has real strengths to bring to the international table: our values, such as fairness, equality and openness; but also our well-earned reputation for a practical approach to solving problems.
We get things done by proposing principled solutions and implementing them collaboratively.
It was in this spirit that we sought an independent review of the WHO’s approach to COVID-19, advocating this was in the interests of all nations. That review received a strong mandate when the World Health Assembly passed an historic resolution calling for an impartial, independent evaluation into the lessons learnt from the global response. We are pleased Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan will be chairing the WHO while the review takes place.
Australia welcomes the appointment of the independent panel undertaking the review, which includes as co-chairs former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
How then can Australia and India work together on these challenges?
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Australia and India have recognised the strengths each other brings to the table and why we should work together to shape the Indo-Pacific.
This was evident during the Virtual Summit between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morrison on 4 June.
Both Prime Ministers recognised it was more important than ever for likeminded democracies to work together, something Prime Minister Modi described was our ‘sacred duty’ and remarked that our countries can be a ‘factor for stability for our region and the world’.
This is what drove the historic elevation of our relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
It also underpinned the conclusion of eight high impact agreements covering a wide range of areas where Australia and India can have an outsize impact on the Indo-Pacific, covering defence and maritime security, cyber and critical technology, critical minerals, education, water and public administration and governance.
If I take just two of these, it is clear how Australia-India cooperation can help shape a more safe and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
Firstly, the two leaders signed a Joint Maritime Declaration and a detailed Action Plan where both countries agreed to work together under India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative to influence the direction of rules, norms and behaviour in the maritime sphere.
We will work hand in hand with our partners in ASEAN and the Indian Ocean Rim Association to strengthen regional approaches to open sea lanes, the rule of law and responsible use of maritime resources supporting economic development.
This will also be underpinned by our close defence relationship reflected in our new Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement which paves the way for even more complex joint defence activities between both countries.
Secondly, our leaders committed both countries to work even more closely together, and with others, under a Framework Arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled Critical Technologies.
With cyber intrusions and attacks an increasing threat in both our countries – and a vector of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific – they recognised it is vital for democracies like Australia and India to guide the rules and standards in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
These will profoundly shape the future security and prosperity of our citizens. Our officials and researchers will work even more closely than before in this area.
By taking forward the agenda set by Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morrison, Australia and India have a greater ability to respond to the challenges we both face in the Indo-Pacific which have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
To conclude, we should be under no illusion that we face a contested, poorer and more challenging Indo-Pacific as a result of COVID-19.
Australia and India can best respond is if we work collaboratively, combining our capabilities and strengths along with those of our partners like Japan, the US, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand.
We must be agile, strategic and work well in flexible coalitions. And we must strengthen and reform regional and global institutions so they deliver for our citizens.
We have seen India step up during the pandemic – something which Australia welcomes. This is why we are strong advocates of India having a greater seat at the global table, whether that is as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council or the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Australia too is not going to be a bystander and will work hand in hand with others to shape developments in the region.
It is incumbent on our governments, businesses, universities, civil society and researchers to pick up the pace of our cooperation so we arrest the worrying trends we face and can set about shaping, for future generations, the more prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific India and Australia want.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.