‘Australia’s strategic concerns in the Indo-Pacific and Indian-Australian relations’
High Commissioner’s speech at the National Defence College
(Check against delivery) 21 April 2023
I’m both honoured and delighted to be here today at India’s National Defence College.
My thanks to the Commandant, Lieutenant General Dahiya.
My thanks also to the student body for your time. It’s a privilege to engage with senior leaders who sit at the intersection of strategy and operations. Leaders who are facing an increasingly complex and rapidly evolving security environment.
There’s one thing I know for sure.
No matter how strong the headwinds, what you learn at the National Defence College will keep you on course.
And will steer you when you face the hardest decisions of your lives and careers.
NDC has a strong history of producing future leaders, including former Australian Chief of the Defence Force and former Governor-General, General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove.
And I am delighted to see Colonel Amanda Johnston – Australia’s first female NDC student – in the audience today.
It is very timely that I speak with you now, because there has never been a point in both of our countries’ histories where we’ve had such strong strategic alignment.
Nor has there ever been a busier time.
Indeed, we look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Modi and other Quad Leaders in Australia next month to further progress the important work of the Quad to uphold a region that is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.
I’ve been asked to talk to you about India-Australia relations and Australia’s concerns in the Indo-Pacific.
And this is perfect timing, because Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong delivered a landmark speech on 17 April detailing how Australia will contribute to the regional balance of power that keeps the peace by shaping the region we want.
But first, the broad context and a bit of history.
I’d like to start by dispelling a tired trope that seems to characterise much of Australia-India relations.
It goes something like this:
Every Australian government has woken up to “discover” India in each term of office.
The three Cs – cricket, Commonwealth and curry – were often used as terms of endearment. A way to explain our common interests and shared experiences.
But it seems to me quite unsatisfactory and anachronistic to consign one of our most important partnerships to such a prosaic cliché.
I would argue the importance of India – to Australia’s security and prosperity – has always run deep.
It has always been a relationship that has gone well beyond the three C’s.
Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who visited India in 1950, said that developments in the world “would be profoundly affected by what happens in India.”
In his words, Australia would: “always feel the pressure of events, the currents of thought and action in Asia.”
Menzies declared that India and Australia should “learn to think together and act together for the world’s peace.”
73 years later, Menzies’ words still hold weight.
These words were similarly echoed by Prime Minister Albanese when he undertook his first official visit to India last month.
Standing on the deck of India’s indigenously built aircraft carrier, Prime Minister Albanese pledged to place India “at the heart of Australia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
In other words, Australia’s relationship with India isn’t one of fleeting or temporary interests. It’s enduring. It’s historical. And it’s important.
Strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region
Now that we’ve looked to the past, I’d like to focus on current developments and challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
I’ll start with a very simple premise.
Australia is a three-ocean nation.
We have the Pacific Ocean to our east and the Indian Ocean to our west.
And while often eclipsed by the enormity of the Pacific and Indian Oceans that lap our shores, Australia’s sizeable Antarctic Territory means that we also have a longstanding interest in the Southern Ocean.
Oceans are fundamentally what define Australia’s place in the world.
And it is our unique geographical position – at the fulcrum of the Pacific and Indian Oceans – that made Australia one of the early adopters of the term “Indo-Pacific.”
Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper brought the term into our official lexicon; defining the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a strategic arc that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia.
From Australia’s perspective, it is the Indo-Pacific that is fast becoming the world’s centre of gravity. It is a dynamic region, filled with promise.
But it is not without risks.
Major power competition, rapid and opaque military build-up, technological disruption and coercive statecraft persistently threaten to up-end the stability of the Indo-Pacific. And new and emerging threats are starting to intersect with geopolitics: climate change, pandemics, supply chain instability, inflation…
Russia’s illegal and immoral war on Ukraine has been a warning bell chiming to the world.
It is a reminder the rules-based order must be consistently, proactively and resolutely protected.
And, a reminder of the importance of being prepared – and equipped – to defend our interests.
As Foreign Minister Wong said, those interests are a region that is open, stable and prosperous.
A predictable region, operating by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.
A region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.
That kind of region demands our national effort, especially as some seek to rewrite the rules.
We deploy all elements of our national power to enable us to remain stable, confident and influential – no matter what challenges we may face in the future.
Responding to challenges in the Indo-Pacific
As part of this response, Australia is committing to a multi-generational reinvestment in our defence structure and capability.
The AUKUS partnership – between Australia, the UK and the US – represents the single biggest investment in Australia’s defence capability.
As soon as the early 2030s, Australia will acquire three Virginia class conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines.
And for our next-generation submarine, we will leverage the best submarine technology from all AUKUS partners to deliver the SSN-AUKUS. A trilaterally developed, conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine based on the UK’s next generation design that incorporates technology from all three nations.
We will ensure our approach sets the highest non-proliferation standard and are consulting regularly and transparently with the IAEA to achieve this.
Australia’s acquisition of SSNs will occur in full compliance with its domestic and international obligations.
As a non-nuclear weapons state, Australia has reaffirmed unequivocally that we do not, and will not, seek to acquire nuclear weapons.
Both the Virginia class submarines Australia will acquire, and the future SSN-AUKUS, will be an Australian sovereign capability.
Owned, operated, maintained and regulated by Australia, under sovereign Australian command.
Australia’s acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine capability will help us maintain our capability edge in an increasingly contested region.
As Foreign Minister Wong has said, these capabilities will make Australia better able – in collaboration with allies and partners – to deter aggression and help ensure strategic balance is maintained in the Indo-Pacific.
But most fundamentally, it will shape a region that is in our collective interests.
A region that is predictable.
A region that is about cooperation, not confrontation.
A region that stands for transparency.
But of course, AUKUS is just one of many investments Australia is making to strengthen our national and regional security.
When Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence stood at the lectern of NDC almost a year ago, he said:
“I come to [my] position conscious of a profound responsibility: to ensure Australia has the capability necessary to defend itself in the toughest strategic environment we’ve encountered in over 70 years.”
The Albanese Government has since undertaken a force posture review to ensure Defence has the right capabilities to meet the region’s growing strategic challenges.
This independent review – the Defence Strategic Review – is a holistic and comprehensive consideration of Australia’s Defence Force structure, examining the ADF’s workforce, investment prioritisation, preparedness, and force posture.
The last time a review of this nature was undertaken was in 2012.
I risk stating the obvious, but things were very different then. The rate of accelerating change means that Australia can no longer rely on an extended lead time for conflict.
We need to be prepared, and we must ensure we have the right capabilities and force posture to meet our evolving strategic needs.
The Defence Strategic Review and its recommendations are currently being considered by the Australian Government. While it would be inappropriate for me to pre empt the Government’s decisions, I want to state very simply that the Australian Government will engage openly and constructively with India and the region on the findings of the review.
Because Australia is committed to transparency.
We listen to our regional partners.
And we will provide strategic reassurance.
So, what does Australia’s perspective of the Indo-Pacific mean for India?
Firstly, we partners flanking the Indian Ocean.
Both India and Australia are encountering challenges to our national sovereignty and risks to regional stability.
Like other nations in the region, we want an Indo-Pacific which is open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous.
But we can’t purely wish for these conditions or sit back passively when they are threatened.
We need to work together to preserve and promote them. And work together to shape a region that is in our interests.
Our defence cooperation is at its highest point in history, with more collaboration and activities than ever before, and at a greater level of complexity.
We are aided by new defence frameworks, like our Mutual Logistic Support Arrangement.
It’s hard to quantify just how rapidly the partnership has grown. It looks completely different to what it was when I commenced as High Commissioner just over three years ago.
To me, the biggest indicator of how far the relationship has come is simply how frank, frequent and trusting our interactions are across the full breath of our relationship: at the Prime Minister and Ministerial level, between our defence organisations, and – of course – operationally.
And if I were to highlight what I think success in our relationship should look like, it’s that. Trust. More of it, and more often. So that desire for cooperation becomes habit, and habit becomes instinct.
Our reciprocal Maritime Patrol Aircraft deployments are an example of where trust has enabled us to take a great leap forward.
This week, an Indian P8 is conducting maritime surveillance operations in Darwin with the Royal Australian Air Force. It’s the third iteration of this maritime initiative.
Later this year, Australia will host Exercise Malabar for the very first time.
These kinds of activities and exercises between India and Australia were simply unheard of a decade ago.
There are two key themes which, I think, are increasingly important when it comes to cooperation between India and Australia.
The first is cooperation between Australia and India on Defence Industry, research and materiel.
India is focused on growing its defence industrial base and sovereign defence capabilities through Prime Minister Modi’s Make in India program.
These priorities mirror ours, and there is much both our countries can gain by way of sharing approaches to innovation, defence industry policy, and sovereign industry.
As we contend with a more precarious strategic environment, it is increasingly important that the defence industrial bases of like-minded countries work more effectively and tightly together.
Enhanced industrial base cooperation between our two nations offers the opportunity to increase the resilience of our supply chains, deliver enhanced capability to our respective armed forces and increase defence interoperability in the longer term.
The reinvigorated India-Australia Joint Working Group on Defence Industry, Research and Material Action (JWG) is crucial to driving defence industry cooperation initiatives moving forward.
Our forthcoming joint Centre of Excellence for Critical and Emerging Technology Policy reflects that commitment.
And our Defence Science and Technology Arrangement will nurture vital new collaboration between our research organisations.
I look forward to Australian companies investing in India and supporting Prime Minister Modi’s Make in India program.
And as we expand our defence cooperation, we see more clearly than ever, that it’s people-to-people links – and business-to-business collaboration – that add depth and ballast to the strategic relationship.
That’s the second key theme I’d like to touch on: the importance of our people.
People are our most important capability and our most critical asset.
Ultimately, the success of our respective militaries’ lies in the character and the culture of our teams.
Last month, the inaugural India-Australia General Rawat Young Defence Officers Exchange Program took place in India.
This landmark program – named in honour of a true advocate of our security ties – will ensure our defence personnel develop the familiarity and trust that underpins a close and long-lasting relationship.
And this exchange program is really the beginning of what I hope is more enduring, closer cooperation.
Significant scope exists for Australia and India to share lessons learned to enhance our approach to joint operations.
India’s Chief of Navy Staff and Chief of Army Staff have both conducted separate visits to Australia’s Joint Operations Command.
In time, I’d like to see Indian officers at Australia’s joint headquarters, embedded alongside the ADF. Working together day in and day out – contesting ideas and finding solutions to some of our most pressing challenges.
That is a true partnership.
As I conclude my time here in New Delhi, it’s hard not be a little reflective.
So, thank you for indulging me today.
I started by talking to you about history and it’s also how I’d like to end today’s discussion.
I’m often told that India has a long memory; how can it not as one of the oldest civilisations in the world?
But there’s a lesser known historical fact that might interest some of you in the room.
In response to Sino-Indian border tensions in 1963, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia pledged to strengthen India’s air defences against possible further attacks.
Australia provided military aid, arms, ammunition, and communications equipment.
In a collective demonstration of solidarity, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the United States Air Force and the Indian Air Force participated together in an air defense exercise called Exercise Shiksha.
The four air forces – with a contingent of almost 5000 aviators – worked together, flew together and learned together.
Most fundamentally, exercise Shiksha delivered a powerful message to the region: that in the face of overreach, a coordinated response among partners can deter coercion.
I share this example because it underscores a basic truth. As we face perhaps the most decisive decade of our times, we’re stronger when we find ways to work together.
I’ll leave you with that thought. I look forward to hearing your perspectives.