Speech: National Defence College New Delhi, India

Department of Defence

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be back in India and a privilege to speak to you today.

And I’m especially pleased that my first address in India as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence is here at the prestigious National Defence College.

It’s a revered institution in Australia.

Indeed, Australia has been sending military staff to study at this college almost every year since 1966.

Former Australian Chief of the Defence Force and former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove, is one of your alumni, graduating in 1994.

Another is Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead, the Chief of our Nuclear Powered Submarine Taskforce.

The relationships forged at this college have helped to build the respect, trust and friendship necessary to underpin a defence pillar of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership our nations agreed in 2020.

I was delighted that our Department of Defence hosted a National Defence College delegation earlier this month, the first since the pandemic. I hope there will be many more such engagements.

After Australians elected a new Government on the 21st of May, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had a simple message to those of us in the Labor Party: never waste a day in government.

One of the priorities of the new Australian Government is India.

As I wrote today in The Indian Express, that Australia should make India a priority is unassailable: Australia must deepen its understanding of, and engagement with, one of the world’s oldest continuous civilisations, the soon to be most populous nation in the world, and a deeply consequential power.

Our world – and our region – faces the most serious strategic confluence of events since the end of the Second World War: intensifying strategic and geo-economic contest, the return of war in Europe, growing climate risks, and enduring pandemic impacts, all of which are driving inflation, supply chain shocks, and de-globalisation.

Navigating both opportunity and risk in this environment won’t be straightforward, and even harder if doing it alone. Australia’s Professor Rory Medcalf – who has done much to develop Australia’s relationship with India – has said that our region is:

“… too vast and complex for any country to succeed in protecting its interests alone. There will be a premium on partnerships… the Indo-Pacific is both a region and an idea: a metaphor for collective action, self-help combined with mutual help.”

My visit this week reflects that conviction, and the commitment by the Albanese Government to place India at the heart of Australia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

As Australia’s new Defence Minister, I come to the 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.

It will involve a generational reinvestment in the size, capability and structure of the Australian Defence Force. In service of this goal, I have instructed my Department to commence a new Force Posture Review to inform decisions I expect to make in the months ahead.

This will be a whole-of-nation effort. But Australia won’t do this alone. The capabilities top-tier militaries will need to field depend on technologies, supply chains and doctrine that no nation can develop on its own. Rather, it is those countries that can best pool their resources and combine their strengths that will have the decisive competitive advantage.

But that kind of cooperation is rare. Because it depends not just on strategic alignment. It depends, also, on trust. Trust between leaders and officials. But, more fundamentally, institutional trust between nations.

It is those countries with which we share the principles and institutions of representative government – democracy and the rule of law – that Australia will work with most closely.

AUKUS, the decision by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to develop an Australian nuclear powered submarine, reflects this logic. AUKUS is a capability and technology partnership, not a new alliance or mutual defence pact. But the fact the three countries are willing to share the most sensitive and advanced military technology available with each other represents a profound trust born of a commitment to the principles and institutions of democratic government.

But AUKUS is just one partnership. And when I look out at the world, India stands out.

This relationship is an old one, forged more than 100 years ago as allies in the crucible of war. But today, the characteristics necessary for deep defence cooperation speak even more loudly: we are of, and share a commitment to an open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region; we are strategically aligned; we share a common commitment to the principles and institutions of democratic government; and most importantly we both understand that the history of human progress and civilisation can be characterised by the extent to which a nation loves cricket.

The geography of Australia and India makes us stewards of the Indian Ocean region. It’s an ocean which accounts for about half the world’s container traffic and is a crucial conduit for global trade.

India’s location makes it the natural leader of this region which Australia strongly supports.

Australia has the region’s longest Indian Ocean coastline, the largest Search and Rescue Zone, and the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

For us both, the Indian Ocean is critical to our security. Which is why our 2020 Defence Strategic Update named the North East Indian Ocean as a priority focus area for Australia’s defence planning.

Around 50 per cent of our sea-borne exports leave those ports situated on the Indian Ocean. We have Indian Ocean-facing naval bases and facilities which are home to a significant portion of the Royal Australian Navy’s vessels.

Australia’s cooperation in the Indian Ocean is underdone. We can afford to do more, not only bilaterally, but also trilaterally with others such as Indonesia.

As an island continent, Australia is a nation both of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. And the Pacific will be a key focus for this Government.

Those who know me will appreciate that a commitment to the peoples of the Pacific isn’t a recent one. The Pacific has been a passion of mine since I first visited Papua New Guinea as a 16-year-old in 1984. It’s home to many of my friends. It’s a place that still amazes me. Its peoples and cultures are astonishing and unique, and fundamental to the world’s human heritage.

Australia will become a more engaged and responsive partner to our Pacific neighbours. The Australian Defence Force will always be there for our Pacific neighbours. Be it in response to natural and humanitarian disasters, or the complex array of security issues we now mutually face.

And we want to work with friends like India, which brings its own unique history to that region and which places such value on respect for sovereignty and national integrity.

I’d like to acknowledge and commend India for the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support it provided to Kiribati and Tonga earlier this year. As Kiribati battled the pandemic, Australia and India worked in lockstep, with Australia arranging a flight to deliver India’s donation of pulse oximeters, personal protective equipment and emergency COVID-19 medication. Australian aircraft helped deliver India’s disaster relief supplies to the Kingdom of Tonga following the undersea volcano eruption and tsunami that devastated that country in January this year.

Australia and India are acutely aware that the security challenges we face can be magnified by the effects of climate change.

At the World Economic Forum in 2018, Prime Minister Modi listed climate change as one of the biggest threats for mankind.

The Australian Government under Prime Minister Albanese has a renewed focus on climate change, which will now factor into Australia’s defence planning and defence diplomacy.

Here too, Australia and India have an opportunity to collaborate. As our scientists and researchers continue to come together under our Defence Science and Technology Arrangement, their endeavours will lead to benefits beyond defence.

There is opportunity under our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to make inroads into clean energy technologies. Our cooperation has vast potential to see us manufacture and deploy ultra low-cost solar and clean hydrogen, offering affordable and reliable access to energy for all.

As nations contend with growing energy demand, climate change and unstable supply chains, India and Australia’s collaboration has the potential to engender security solutions for the security challenges we all face.

These priorities alone underscore why Australia places great importance on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership we share with India.

It’s a partnership which can drive new levels of engagement across all aspects of defence collaboration.

Under our partnership we have two landmark defence arrangements:

  • a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement – which is enhancing our military cooperation, force interoperability, and joint efforts to respond to regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts; and
  • a Defence Science and Technology Arrangement – which is nurturing new collaboration between our research organisations and between our defence industrial bases.

Our bilateral collaboration in artificial intelligence, cyber and space capabilities, quantum, and emerging technologies will create opportunities for partnering on defence capabilities.

There are also mutual economic opportunities, especially as we both look to diversify and build resilience in our supply chains, as seen with Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” indigenisation program for the military. And the Australian Defence Export Office is eager to send representatives from Australia’s defence industry to India’s premier defence exhibition – DefExpo.

With our defence relationship now traversing almost every military activity – from dialogues to information sharing, from personnel exchanges to scientific and technological cooperation – one of our most important areas of cooperation remains military training.

Our military exercises continue to grow in intensity and sophistication. Such as the Royal Australian Air Force-hosted multi-national Pitch Black air defence exercise involving the Indian Air Force. The joint training our navies undertake along with those of Japan and the United States as part of Exercise MALABAR. And our biennial navy exercise, AUSINDEX. India participated as an observer during Australia’s Exercise TALISMAN SABRE last year, and I renew the invitation for India to fully participate in its future iterations. And Australian and Indian forces will soon join those of 24 other nations as part of the United States’ biennial RIMPAC exercise.

In addition to these exercises, I also want to highlight the successful deployments of an Indian P-8 aircraft to Darwin in April and a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 to India earlier this month. I was fortunate enough to see the Indian Navy in action when I undertook a sortie in your P-8 yesterday, and was impressed by the capability and professionalism of your military colleagues. Our combined maritime surveillance not only builds our joint maritime domain awareness, but also contributes to maritime security in accordance with the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As we continue to lift our defence and security cooperation, exploring longer-term reciprocal access arrangements is the logical next step.

It will not be lost on any of us that deeper Australian-Indian security cooperation is often seen as a response to a rising China.

There is nothing remarkable about two democracies working together in response to strategic change. But it would be wrong to assume, as some commentators tend to, that China is at the centre of every decision.

We all expect a more powerful China to have a stronger say in regional and international affairs. But what is important is that the exercise of Chinese power exhibits the characteristics necessary for our shared prosperity and security. Respect for agreed rules and norms. With trade and investment flow based on agreed rules and binding treaty commitments. And where disputes among states are resolved via dialogue, and in accordance with international law.

This is vital when it comes to the rearmament we are witnessing in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia does not question the right of any country to modernise its military capabilities consistent with its interests and resources.

But large-scale military build-ups must be transparent. And they must be accompanied by statecraft that reassures.

China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the Second World War.

It is critical that China’s neighbours do not see this build-up as a risk for them. Because without that reassurance, it is inevitable that countries will seek to upgrade their own military capabilities in response.

Insecurity is what drives an arms race.

India’s own experience illustrates this maxim more than most. The assault on Indian forces along the Line of Actual Control in 2020 was a warning we should all heed. Australia stood up for India’s sovereignty then and continues to do so now. It is vital that China commits to resolving this dispute through a process of dialogue consistent with international law. The global rules based order matters everywhere, including in the highest place on earth.

The return of war in Europe is another warning.

I do not come here to lecture India on how it should respond to this conflict, or how it should manage its relationship with Russia. Every country needs to make its own choices.

But Russia’s war on Ukraine does teach us that we cannot just rely on economic interdependence to deter conflict; and that deterrence can fail when one country’s determined military build-up creates an imbalance of military power. An imbalance that encouraged President Putin to conclude the benefits from conflict outweighed the risks.

This is a lesson Australia is taking to heart. It is in all of our interests to ensure no country in our region ever comes to a similar judgement.

This informs my Government’s intention to transform the Australian Defence Force into one with more potent deterrence capabilities, including long-range and precision strike weapons, offensive and defensive cyber, and area denial systems. The same logic underpins the decision to acquire nuclear powered submarines with the United States and the United Kingdom under AUKUS. A partnership that will also guide accelerated development of advanced defence capabilities where they have the most impact, such as quantum technology, artificial intelligence, undersea warfare, hypersonics and counter-hypersonics.

Australia sees these investments as a necessary and prudent response to the military build-up we see taking place in the Indo-Pacific. These investments are not only about Australia’s security – they are about the region’s security as well. And they will make Australia a more valuable and potent partner for our allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m told the National Defence College’s motto translates in English to “Wisdom is Strength”.

India and Australia will need both wisdom and strength if we are to successfully navigate the complex strategic circumstances we face in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia stands ready to work even more closely with India for an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific.

Thank you.

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