Indian Ocean Conference, conference opening address

  • Speech, check against delivery

I acknowledge the Noongar people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather.

I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

The feature artwork of this conference is the Loggerhead Turtle, created by Noongar artists Peter Farmer Snr and his son, Peter Farmer Jnr.

They said the turtle is a fitting image 'to represent Australia's role in gathering the 'Indian Ocean' community here in Perth'.

Because, I quote:

'The Loggerhead traverses vast ocean currents, from the northern equatorial to the southern equatorial; then down through the Mozambique and Agulhas currents, across to the west-wind drifts of Western Australian currents, before heading north again.'

It's a reminder that we aren't the only ones that share this vast Indian Ocean.

Excellencies and distinguished guests

Thank you to the Perth USAsia Centre and the India Foundation for joining with us in hosting the 2024 Indian Ocean Conference.

It's great to see so many friends here.

Last year, I had the honour of representing Australia at this conference in Dhaka.

As I flew into Dhaka I could see the mouth of the Ganges as it emptied into the Indian Ocean.

Seeing the world from above always offers a unique sense of perspective.

Around 280 million people live below on the Ganges Delta.

Over half a billion people rely on the immense Ganges River Basin.

As you flew into Perth I wonder if you had similar thoughts.

That we meet here at one edge of the Indian Ocean region.

Look west and you'll see over two billion people living in the nations of this great, Indian Ocean littoral.

Two billion people who rely on this body of water: for navigation, for sustenance, for trade…

…for regulating our planet's climate.

Two billion people – or one-quarter of the whole of humanity – who in this century will face rapid geopolitical and economic change…

…as well as disruptive environmental change.

Two billion citizens who we – and our governments – represent.

It gives you a sense of the scale of the challenge – and the responsibility – behind our conference's theme of working 'towards a stable and sustainable Indian Ocean'.

To know the challenges we're up against, we must first appreciate three historic trends that are re-shaping our world today.

The first is this period of strategic competition, and how it differs from what went before.

However you want to describe it – the post-Cold War order, the 'End of History', the unipolar moment…

But what happens next is up to us.

The Indian Ocean is our region and we get to determine its character together.

We can insist all countries operating in our Indian Ocean region:

  • conduct themselves transparently and responsibly,
  • adhere to internationally agreed rules and norms, and
  • maintain open and meaningful lines of communication.

We can strengthen regional architecture – through forums like the IOC and IORA – to deepen the region's strategic resilience and build an Indian Ocean community.

We can reaffirm norms of expected behaviour, like we did in 2022 with IORA's Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

It is important to understand each of us has a voice, and can act.

By setting clear standards and asking all countries to follow them, we can help avoid the sorts of tensions and unsafe practices we've seen in the East and South China Seas.

The recent resumption of dialogue between China and the United States is a welcome development.

While we cannot dictate how China and the United States see each other, we can encourage steps that would help ensure they manage their relationship responsibly.

We are pleased to be co-hosting this conference with India…

…and co-leading IORA's working group on maritime safety and security, which plays an important role in reinforcing regional norms in the maritime domain.

Australia's approach is to be an engaged partner, not a passive bystander.

We want to work with partners to shape the kind of region we want.

We want an open and inclusive region, founded on agreed norms, rules and international law…

…with inclusion in its institutions and decision-making, with an equal voice for all…

…and where countries can have confidence in the choices they are offered – choices that are credible, genuine and free from coercion.

We want a stable region, underpinned by a balance of power that deters aggression and coercion and reduces the risks of crisis and conflict.

And we want a prosperous, connected region, with a system of open, rules-based trade.

The second trend in our region is the global demographic and economic shift.

In most parts of the world, people are getting older, living longer and having fewer babies.

The exception is South Asia and Africa…

…where countries will reap a 'demographic dividend'.

If leaders can match population growth with policies that help unleash their people's potential, then they can shift the engine room of the global economy toward the Indian Ocean.

Australia is committed to supporting the economic aspirations and resilience of our Indian Ocean neighbours.

Through our development program, we are contributing to increased growth, connectivity, water security, and skills development.

We're harnessing the expertise of the World Bank, to leverage loans and private sector investment in South Asian transport and energy infrastructure.

We're improving access to safe water and sanitation services for disadvantaged communities.

And we're boosting people power, through our Australia Awards Program…

…to build skills and knowledge, so that promising young people from around the Indian Ocean region can contribute to their countries' development.

Over the last ten years, Australia has given 10,000 scholarships to recipients from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

We're also focused on responding to regional partners' trade and investment priorities.

Australia and Nepal will later today sign a Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA), a key milestone towards achieving closer economic relations.

And we warmly welcome Bhutan's recent appointment of new Honorary-Consuls in Melbourne and Sydney.

Whether across our development program, or trade and investment agenda, Australia is committed to supporting economic growth and resilience.

The third and final trend that will re-shape our world is, of course, climate change.

Sea levels are rising.

Ecosystems are collapsing.

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.

Last year, NASA announced we were living through the planet's hottest year since records began one hundred and forty-years ago.

The impacts are now constantly being felt by our region:

  • severe flooding last year in northeast India and Bangladesh
  • a dry, late snowfall in Kashmir
  • a record summer heatwave in Western Australia

Even the Indian Ocean itself is changing.

Changing sea surface temperatures will alter weather systems, affect climate and rainfall, and ultimately impact fisheries and agriculture.

The humble Loggerhead Turtle, who I began my speech with, will find its habitats and migratory patterns disrupted.

In the future, our climate cooperation will only increase as our region confronts these challenges together.

Excellencies and distinguished guests,

Australia is an Indian Ocean country.

We face shared challenges.

So we must develop shared solutions.

That's why as Assistant Foreign Minister, I've attended two iterations of the IORA Council of Ministers – and now, two Indian Ocean Conferences.

Australia is committed to this region – as an engaged partner, not a passive bystander.

We want to see an Indian Ocean region that is peaceful, stable and prosperous.

Where agreed rules and norms allow us to cooperate, trade and thrive.

Where we work together on the issues that matter to us all.

I am confident the discussions we have this week will advance these shared priorities.

Thank you.

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