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Australia and India share an ocean bordering a region that is of enormous strategic significance, not just to us, but to the security and prosperity of the whole of Asia. Understandably, 95 percent of India’s trade by volume and 68 percent by value come via the Indian Ocean. But less well known is the fact that 64 percent of the world’s oil trade passes through the Indian Ocean. So we share some pretty fundamental strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.
But it is my contention that we also share some pretty fundamental global strategic interests, and they are what I would like to deal with briefly today.
I would like to preface my remarks with a few observations on the international operating environment in which we currently find ourselves.
It may be something of a truism to say that we live in more than interesting times. What we are facing now is quite different from the kind of discontinuity with which our international system has long been familiar. Indeed, it would be fair to say we are witnessing a period characterised by widespread disruption.
One of the most reassuring characteristics of the international system that has operated for the past seventy years is its resilience, which is a function of its complexity and its multi-dimensional character, along with the rules both written and conventional that have governed it.
The disruption that we currently face is of an altogether different complexion. It is driven by a range of structural factors, ranging from the economic and social inequality of which the French economist Thomas Piketty writes, the reappearance of nationalism, and the alarming re-emergence of national politics driven by ideology rather than good policy.
This disruption is exacerbated by new tensions in the basic operating system underpinning the traditional competition for position and power. For the best part of half a millennium, we have become all too familiar with the way in which nations face off militarily, building empires that rise and fall as a reflex of their military strength – or lack thereof. The Cold War showed us what happens when one power bankrupts itself in competing with another for military dominance.
What we are now dealing with is both subtle and disruptive. While economic strength has previously been more or less convergent with strategic strength – that is, economic power has represented itself as military power – we are now confronted by a situation where economic power and strategic power offer divergent means of jostling for pre-eminence.
The emergence of geo-economic power as an alternative to geo-strategic power rather than its complement challenges traditional mindsets and traditional ways of doing business. Comfortable assumptions that military strength constrains global strategic ambition are challenged by the way in which economic power is being focused and organised.
One has only to look at the Brexit vote and its political aftermath in both Britain and the EU to see that Europe is headed for completely uncharted waters. Moreover, early moves by the Trump administration include marked departures from traditional US governmental and diplomatic practice.
North Asia confronts the belligerence of Kim Jong-un as the North Korean regime continues to stake its political survival on the development of nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems.
And all of this is exacerbated by fundamental political, social and ethnic fault lines stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan where civil war and suffering on a scale we have not seen since WW2 combine to threaten not only the nations of the Middle East, but also the social cohesion of European countries as they respond to the humanitarian disaster on their doorstep.
In circumstances like these, it is easy for countries like Australia and India to give in to uncertainty, become defensive and timid, keeping the head down so as neither to give offence nor be offended.
This would be exactly the wrong response. In times of uncertainty, first mover advantage lies with whoever sets the agenda. And that is exactly what we should both seek to do, practically and confidently.
It is worth recalling that disruption also opens the door to innovation – to new ways of construing problems and to different ways of resolving them. Disruption creates unimagined opportunities. Our challenge is to identify them.
It has sometimes been said that the whole of the Australia-India relationship is less than the sum of its parts. And to judge by images of the Taj Mahal that occasionally dominate Australia’s consciousness of India, or pictures of Australia’s unique fauna such as kangaroos and koalas that periodically capture the Indian imagination, that may be more true than we would like it to be.
As the world’s largest democracy, India and Australia – as one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies – share a critically important starting point in building a more robust and comprehensive relationship in these disrupted times. For we both place the rule of law at the centre of our political and legal practice. Consequently, we share a singular advantage when it comes to advocating and shaping the international rules-based order on which we both depend.
And if, as I suggest, first mover advantage lies with whoever sets the agenda, here are a few items that Australia and India might consider putting on it.
First, there needs to be renewed energy and vigour in honouring and strengthening international agreements to address the consequences of climate change reflecting a clear and evidence-based national policy. As the global community becomes increasingly aware of the security dimension to changes in our climate due to global warming, we both need to work with insight and determination if our own long term security interests are to be protected. This is nowhere more true than in the great riverine deltas and archipelagos of Asia as sea levels progressively rise.
Of course, central to our collective response to climate change is low carbon development – the decoupling of economic growth and carbon emissions.
Second, as trade is increasingly treated with disdain and protectionism rises, we must find better ways to work with the great economies of Asia, Europe and North America to ensure that open trading systems remain in place so that new technologies, automation and artificial intelligence benefit our citizens.
Asia will continue to be a powerhouse for the global economy as it realises its potential. Many of you would know that Australia, because of its minerals, energy and commodity strength, has played no small part in China’s amazing growth. We look forward to playing a similar role in India’s economic expansion as it capitalises on its truly remarkable human and intellectual capital.
Third, we need to appreciate the continued importance of the US in the maintenance of global stability. For Australia, our relationship with the US is of paramount importance. We need to ensure that it is both sensitive to the changes underway in the Asia Pacific region and conducive to creating a more confident, vibrant and robust regional security dialogue. To that end India’s status as the dominant Indian Ocean power is critical. And it goes without saying that the US is important to India.
Finally, India and Australia share a common interest in an international rules-based order that is both responsive to the challenges of the twenty first century and at the same time flexible enough to ensure that opportunities can be realised quickly as they arise.
This means that both India and Australia need to invest more diplomatic and intellectual energy in the various international institutions in which we are mutually engaged. For it is these institutions, the UN, the UN agencies, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the G20, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Indian Ocean Rim Association – among many others – that actually promulgate the rules and agreements that constitute the international rules-based order.
There is, of course, a measure of asymmetry in the relationship between India and Australia. That is not something to be worried about, but rather something that we must simply be aware of. Our land masses are similar, but our populations vastly different.
And India quite legitimately aspires to a global role commensurate with its population, its extraordinary human capital and its history.
Since independence, India has been progressively expanding its role on the global stage. As India, and the global community more generally, comes to terms with the compounding effect of its role as a nation state and its status as one of the world’s great civilisations, it has the capacity to become a truly unique force for global good.
Nation states are a relatively recent phenomenon, an artefact of the devastating religious wars that spread through Europe during the seventeenth century, ending with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which just happened to be the year in which Shah Jahan’s great architectural love poem in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal was completed in Agra.
But India, like China, existed as a civilisation for the best part of three millennia before it emerged as a nation state. And when, in the post WW2 dispensation, the dominant role models were the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China, it is perhaps unsurprising that India was somewhat ambivalent as it sought to realise its own particular identity as a player on the global stage.
But in recent years, and particularly under Prime Minister Modi, India is creating an international image that is uniquely Indian.
There is a wonderful verse towards the end of the Bhagavad Gita with which you would all be familiar. In some ways, it sums up the central message of that majestic work when it says:
Better one’s own duty, though lacking recognition, than that of another, however well performed:
By carrying out the actions determined by one’s own being one is not compromised.
By being itself, this is exactly what India has begun to do. It is, in that particular sense, a precursor to the advice Polonius gave to Hamlet – “to thine own self be true”. India is exactly the kind of confident partner that Australia values.
Australia, for its part, does not pretend to be a global power. But we do have global interests. A former Australian High Commissioner to India, Peter Varghese, put it very neatly when he said:
“Australia is not a global power but we do have interests across the globe. Asia and the United States will always be central to our interests but we also need to spread our risks and seek out other opportunities”.
India is one of those opportunities.
I should like to conclude by saying that India and Australia have a bright future together, one that we should embark upon both confidently and deliberately. We should not allow the disrupted nature of the global environment blind us to the opportunities that such disruption inevitably generates. The only limit to our ability to capture those opportunities is our imagination, and imagination is a quality that India has in abundance.