Australian High Commission
New Delhi
India, Bhutan

High Commissioner's remarks at the United Service Institution of India (12/11/18)

                                             Address by Australian High Commissioner, H E Ms Harinder Sidhu, to the United Service Institution of India

                                               “India-Australia Relations: Building a strong, resilient partnership during a time of global change”

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Good morning.

It gives me a great pleasure to join you today. This is my first speech at the United Service Institution of India and it is an honour to deliver the Special Address as part of your annual International Seminar, an event of interest to scholars across India and the globe.

Lieutenant General Singh, thank you for the welcome and General Rawat, it was a pleasure to hear your perspectives on India’s place in the world.

Today, I wanted to set out how Australia sees the changing regional and global order, how Australia is responding and the important areas where we are building our strategic and military partnership with India.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Modi travelled to Japan for the annual summit between Indian and Japanese leaders.

That Japan is a strategic partner of India, rather than only an economic partner is accepted in India without doubt or controversy. Both countries share similar outlooks and strategic concerns, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

That is at it should be. Australia has a deep and long-standing strategic partnership with Japan, for similar reasons.

Yet, despite the rapidly expanding strategic partnership between Australia and India, I do not detect the same degree of confidence in Australia by Indian thinkers such as those here today.

Perhaps this is because there is low or outdated understanding about what Australia can bring to the strategic equation.

So I propose to use my time here today to set out the reasons why I think that India and Australia are natural partners, and why India should consider doing more with Australia in military and strategic relations.

Strategic challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific

After centuries of Western dominance, the global balance of power is shifting. The economic and strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific – the region which brings together the Indian and Pacific Oceans – is growing.

China, but also India, Japan and the countries of ASEAN, have increasing influence over global affairs.

The main driver for this is economic.

As Prime Minister Morrison said in Indonesia in September, the Indo-Pacific is now the ‘fulcrum’ of the global economy.

By 2030, we predict the world’s top five economies will all be in the Indo-Pacific: China, the United States, India, Japan and Indonesia. In this time:

• China’s GDP is expected to double to over US$ 42 trillion in purchasing power parity terms
• India’s GDP will more than double to reach nearly US$21 trillion (PPP); and
• Asia will deliver two thirds of global growth.

However, the same economic success that has presented opportunities, delivered growth and pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, has also raised strategic competition.

The capabilities and projection of hard power by Indo-Pacific states is rapidly increasing, so that:

• Asia is now the second largest region in terms of military expenditure at $447 billion in 2017 – this rose from approximately 17 per cent of global expenditure to 27 per cent over the past 10 years.
• Of the top 10 states with the highest military expenditure, six are located in the Indo-Pacific.
• India has been the world’s largest arms importer in recent years.

The result is power relativities within the Indo-Pacific are shifting.

Strategic competition from China is influencing where power lies in the international system.

In the South China Sea, Australia has been concerned by the pace and scale of China’s activities, including the use of disputed features and artificial structures for military purposes.

In the Vice President Pence’s recent speech about his country’s relationship with China, he drew clear lines about US concerns about certain Chinese political, economic and military activities and the US’ intended response.

The effects of the global financial crisis has led to growing inequality and questioning of institutions and the rules-based order.

Building on these sentiments, a wide array of leaders have been elected across the globe who fall outside the political traditions of their countries. They are adopting novel policies and approaches in how they interact on the world stage. 

We don’t yet know how all this will play out.

It is forcing us to take a hard look about the things we value most in the international system.

Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy and solutions

Like India, the Australian Government has been grappling with how to respond to these challenges and opportunities, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

In November last year, we published a Foreign Policy White Paper which sets out Australia’s vision for a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. 

Of course every country looks for prosperity and stability.  But more than that, the White Paper describes the kind of peace that we seek. 

We want a region characterised by respect for international law and by open markets.  Where there is freedom from coercion and where disputes between countries are resolved peacefully and fairly.

With this goal in mind, our Foreign Policy White Paper and our 2016 Defence White Paper set out our Indo-Pacific priorities as:

  • Supporting the US alliance and encouraging strong US engagement in the region
  • Strengthening partnerships with other regional democracies such as India, Japan and Indonesia
  • Supporting ASEAN and its institutions, particularly the EAS
  • Supporting an open integrated open, integrated regional economy
  • And, very importantly, building a constructive relationship with China.

Importantly, Australia has given substantial thought to ensure we have the right capabilities to advance these priorities, building on our existing natural strengths and traditions.

Our military capability is the bedrock of our strategic capability.  We come from a rich military tradition.  Australian forces have fought in every major conflict since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Australia has one of the largest defence forces per capita. We have the fifth largest military spend in Asia and Oceania after China, India, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

As outlined in our 2016 Defence White Paper we are increasing defence spending to two per cent of GDP by 2020-21 to create an even more capable and agile Australian Defence Force. 

The Australian Government is investing AUD 200 billion over the next decade to build all of our future submarines, major surface combatants and minor war vessels in Australia.

We have significant naval power and ability to project into the Pacific and Indian Oceans where we have a large exclusive economic zone and seabed. We have experience conducting defence and stabilisation missions in our near region, including Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands. 

And modernising our maritime capabilities is a priority for Australia for the next 20 to 30 years. We are increasing our submarine force from 6 to 12 and bringing on nine new frigates optimised for anti-submarine warfare from the late 2020s.

On the diplomatic front, we have a strong tradition in the multilateral system promoting a rules-based order which respects the rights and interests of all countries. 

We are a founding member of the United Nations and an active participant in the 1945 San Francisco Conference which negotiated the UN Charter.

Australia led the charge on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And more recently we have been at the forefront of efforts to support India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, having supported it joining the Australia Group. 

But it is our geography that determines our immediate strategic interest.

We have been a dialogue partner with ASEAN for more than 50 years, supporting the creation of the East Asia Summit (and India’s inclusion in that forum).

We are maintaining a strong development assistance program which contributes to economic growth, infrastructure and human development across the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the Pacific Islands region and Southeast Asia.

We believe we are building the right capabilities to support our Indo-Pacific strategy.

India’s Role in the Indo-Pacific

For its part, India has set out a clear strategy for how it intends to respond to challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific. 

Prime Minister Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue on 1 June this year set out India’s objectives for the Indo-Pacific – highlighting the importance of open trade, a rules-based order, transparency, the rights of all states and the central role of ASEAN.

These are objectives that Australia shares.

We have seen India playing an active role in a variety of forums to give effect to that strategy, including the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the East Asia Summit, its Indian Ocean Conferences held in Sri Lanka in 2017 and Vietnam in 2018, the strategic direction set in its Foreign and Defence Ministers’ 2+2 with the United States, trilateral engagement with Japan and the US and its increase in military exercises, including with Vietnam for the first time in 2018.

We have also seen an increase in India’s engagement with Australia.

Australia and India are natural partners.  This is because we share a conviction about the importance of the freedom of manoeuvre of all states, liberal societies, democracy and free and open trade.

We have exchanged multiple leaders’ visits since establishing our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2014.  Since then, we have built a strong and complex architecture of bilateral engagement across a range of fields – from education to culture to defence and security.

We have a strong defence and security partnership. Our agencies and ministries have annual talks on every conceivable security issue – including maritime security, counter-terrorism and cyber security.

Defence cooperation is at the highest tempo it has been in our two countries’ histories.  We have gone from 11 defence exercises, activities and meetings in 2014 to 29 in 2017 and 38 in 2018, including annual exercises between our three services.

The level of trust and interoperability between our defence forces has been on display during two events this year.

First, during EXERCISE PITCHBLACK, a multilateral air exercise in Northern Australia in July, Australia refuelled an Indian Sukoi fighter in the air - demonstrating our ability to work together across our different systems.

Second, in response to the distress call from Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy in Australia’s search and rescue zone in the Indian Ocean, Australia’s Joint Rescue and Cooordination Centre ensured that Australian P8 surveillance aircraft and the HMAS Ballarat frigate were quickly deployed. Australia helped deliver a quick response alongside the India and France.

India and Australia work also work with other likeminded democracies to address challenges and seize opportunities in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan and Indonesia.

We are also both members of the Quadrilateral Dialogue, or Quad.

Over the past twelve months, senior officials from India, Japan, the US and Australia have met twice in this format and discussed a range of strategic challenges.  We have discussed maritime cooperation, counter-terrorism, development and connectivity, good governance and reinforcing the rules-based order, ASEAN and ASEAN-led institutions.

I am often asked whether the Quad is achieving its intent.  In my view it is doing exactly what it was intended to do. 

The purpose of any dialogue is to build understanding and deepen shared interest. The Quad is intended to do no more and no less than that.  

Sustained and regular dialogue is the way to build confidence and trust among nations.  And trust is a valuable asset in reducing anxiety in an uncertain environment.

Another doubt that I often encounter about Australia is whether our deep relationships with large powers affects our independence.

I am surprised how often I am asked, for example, whether Australia’s strong economic relationship with China, or our close defence and security alliance with the United States, makes us in some way beholden to them. 

This is a mistaken idea.

Australia seeks a productive and cooperative relationship with all countries but we do raise concerns when we must to defend our interests. 

We are committed to constructive collaboration and engagement with China.  But we were also one of the few countries to call out China’s failure to acknowledge the binding decision of the Arbitral Tribunal formed under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea brought by the Philippines regarding activities in the South China Sea.

Equally, we have been clear when we disagree with the direction of US policy notwithstanding our military alliance or strong cultural ties.

We have taken a different position to the US on the issue of tariffs, for instance. We support the lowering of barriers to trade.  We have stayed engaged in the Trans Pacific Partnership after the US withdrawal and are proud to be among the first countries to deposit our instrument of ratification for the TPP-11 just earlier this week.


Australia intends to build a strong strategic and defence partnership with India. For the first time, our 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper placed India in ‘the front rank’ of our international partnerships.

While India has always been an important partner for Australia, our strategic alignment is stronger now than it has ever been.

But with our shared interests, our strengths as a country and strategic location in the Indo-Pacific, Australia should also be considered in the top rank of India’s partnerships.

To do that, we should work to take our relationship to the next level.

To cement our burgeoning defence ties, it makes sense for India and Australia to agree a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement between our militaries.  It would cement the increasing interoperability of our defence forces as shown by our regular exercises and our ability to conduct operations such as a mid-air refuelling across our different systems.

Equally, there is more we can do to support our efforts build a picture of illegal maritime activities in the Indian Ocean. With both of us having significant Exclusive Economic Zones and search and rescue areas in the Indian Ocean, it makes sense for us to cooperate further on maritime domain awareness.

And we have said that if we were invited, we would be willing to join EXERCISE MALABAR. It makes sense for Australia to exercise with others with whom we work closely in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

To conclude, let me reiterate that there is much uncertainty stemming from geopolitical flux in the Indo-Pacific and wider-world.

Australia is serious about making a contribution towards peace and stability in the region.  Working with likeminded democracies like India is a central part of our strategy. 

And we have the commitment, strengths, values and traditions to be at the top rank of India’s strategic partnerships for years to come. It makes sense for Australia and India to do even more together.

This is an exciting time to be an Australian High Commissioner to India.  I am looking forward to working with our Indian friends to build our shared vision for a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Thank you again to the United Services Institute of India.