Keynote speech, South Asia Conference 2023

  • Speech

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we stand today, the Wurundjeri people, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

I also acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.

And I reaffirm the Australian Government's commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – Voice, Treaty and Truth.

I acknowledge

  • Martine Letts, CEO of the Asia Link Group
  • Tully Smith, CEO of the Australia-India Chamber of Commerce
  • Lisa Singh, CEO of the Australia India Institute
  • Andrew Fairley AM, Consul-General from Finland and
  • Dr Michael Wesley from the University of Melbourne

Thank you to Alastair Roff, Executive Director of the AIIA Victoria and his team for pulling this event together.

As our region becomes more contested, organisations like the AIIA increase in importance for Australia's long-term prosperity and security.

By helping Australians to understand and engage with complex challenges in international relations, the AIIA improves the quality of the ideas and debate on how to address these challenges, something I and my colleagues in the Albanese Government are thankful for.

It's a pleasure to address the AIIA's South Asia Conference, at a time when our many relationships with South Asia have been making headlines.

I recently joined Prime Ministers Albanese and Modi at Sydney Olympic Park, where they stood before a crowd of thousands.

Indian-Australians are our second largest overseas-born migrant group, and if you ever needed a clear example of people-to-people links between India and Australia – that was it.

While our relationship with India is stronger than it has ever been, I want to begin by highlighting our Government's diplomacy with South Asia and the Indian Ocean region as a whole.

A topic that receives less media attention,but is vital to our interests.

This is a region that is growing in economic and strategic salience and will only continue to grow in importance in the years ahead.

Allow me to make the case:

From the 2030s onwards, the states of the Indian Ocean littoral, which extends roughly from East Africa, through South Asia, to Indonesia, will become the new drivers of global growth...

If in the 1980s we saw the tiger economies of Singapore, Korea and Taiwan, and in the 2000s we saw economic miracle that was China…

…then by the end of this decade, and in the decades to come, we will see the prominence of economies in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

This inevitability is partly demographic:

India, for example, has already overtaken China as the world's most populous country…

…many of the countries in this region have young populations; for example, Bangladesh, where approximately 45% of the population is under 25.

South Asia, alongside East and Southeast Asia, is already an economic centre of gravity.

And we need to continue to work together to bolster our institutional cooperation.

Unlike Southeast Asia, where ASEAN centrality is now firmly established and re-affirmed by its external partners – including Australia - South Asia and Indian Ocean countries are in the process of strengthening their regional architecture.

For example, last year I was pleased to attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers' meeting in Dhaka, where we reached agreement on an IORA Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

This marked the first time the region – as a region – expressed a common view of an Indo-Pacific built on a rules-based order, with respect for key international rules like freedom of navigation and overflight.

It is notable that the Outlook was developed thanks to India's leadership and agreed during Bangladesh's tenure as Chair.

It was an example of the important role South Asian countries can play in shaping the norms of our region and strengthening our regional architecture.

That's why I'm pleased to see Sri Lanka take on the role of IORA Chair from October, with India to follow in two years' time.

This region's leadership is crucial to the future of our broader Indo-Pacific region and the future of our world.

When one considers the Indo-Pacific strategic map, the Indian Ocean is plainly one half of that whole.

The question is, how should Australia position itself vis-à-vis this rising Indian Ocean region?

Well, in my view, we must be an engaged partner, not a passive observer.

We must engage because our own security and prosperity depends on it.

As our Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles, once put it, Australia's geography makes us a steward of the Indian Ocean.

We've one of the region's longest Indian Ocean coastlines and we're responsible for its largest search and rescue zone.

We have an interest in ensuring that shipping lanes that cross the Indian Ocean – on which we and the rest of the world rely – stay free, secure and unimpeded.

We want the region to be stable and prosperous. The security and prosperity of our neighbours is very much linked to our own security and prosperity.

In the first year of the Albanese Government, we've boosted our engagement in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region.

In May, Australia opened our High Commission in the Maldives, which will help us deepen our relationship with a valued Indian Ocean partner.

It is a timely development as we mark 50 years of diplomatic relations with the Maldives in 2024.

In the face of Sri Lanka's economic crisis, the Government provided $75 million in humanitarian and development assistance, to help Sri Lanka meet its immediate food and health needs and to support its economic recovery.

We believe economic stability and security are fundamentally linked.

Strong, stable economies are less vulnerable to coercion and better able to make independent decisions.

When natural disasters have struck, we've extended a hand to help our friends in South Asia get back on their feet.

We have provided $2.5 million to humanitarian partners to support Bangladeshi communities in the most severely affected areas recover from Cyclone Mocha.

And we provided more than $10 million in humanitarian assistance in response to catastrophic flooding in Pakistan in 2022.

As Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, I've also made a number of visits across South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region to bolster Australia's relationships and to demonstrate our commitment to regional bodies.

A satisfying dividend of investing in our regional relationships is the uplift in people-to-people links.

On each of my trips to the region, I've encountered multiple Australian alumni, and scores of people proud to tell me 'I've got family in Australia'.

But these linkages don't just happen.

They are underwritten by diplomacy and the effort and commitment of governments and institutions to fostering these ties.

And in this line of work, the first rule of diplomacy is: if you want to be taken seriously, you have to turn up.

In February, I travelled to the opposite edge of the Indian Ocean, to Ethiopia and to Kenya. In Kenya, I opened our new High Commission building.

I was the first Australian minister to visit Kenya since 2015.

East African nations like Ethiopia and Kenya see the Indian Ocean as a gateway to greater opportunities and are eager to enhance cooperation with Australia and the region.

I've travelled to Bangladesh twice in this Government's first year.

Two visits in six months is a clear demonstration of Australia's commitment to Bangladesh and the region, and a reflection of the deep people-to-people links, forged over more than 50 years of diplomatic relations.

At last count, there were more than 51,000 people born in Bangladesh now living in Australia.

And I have seen firsthand from my own community how the community remains connected to Bangladesh and is forging connections in Australia.

Particularly at International Mother Language Day, which I celebrated with the Victorian Bangladeshi Community Foundation this year.

My first visit to Bangladesh was late last year, for the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers' meeting that I mentioned earlier.

There, I met Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen and the State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shahriar Alam. And we achieved that IORA Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

The second visit was in May, for the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC).

That time, I was introduced to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by State Minister Shahriar Alam, and I made a speech about the Indian Ocean, where I said it was 'one of the key points of confluence for global strategic competition today'.

I am pleased to see Bangladesh recently released its own Indo-Pacific Outlook, which confirms Bangladesh, like Australia, seeks a free, open, peaceful, secure and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

On that second visit to Bangladesh, I also visited Nepal and Bhutan. Despite being landlocked, their economies, much like ours, are tied to maritime routes, even if their exports must first pass through a transit country.

Again, diplomacy is about turning up.

While in Nepal, I participated in a ceremony where representatives from the Art Gallery of NSW returned a 13th century temple strut to the Government of Nepal.

But one of the highlights of my trip, though, was meeting Australian alumni in Nepal, a relatively common occurrence given it is our third largest market for overseas students.

And you can see the impact of people who have studied in Australia and returned to Nepal in every sector of the country.

They are MPs, senior government officials, medical professionals and biomedical researchers.

I even met two Nepali chefs who learned their craft in Australia's best restaurants and who served me a remarkable meal at the beautiful Basuki Ghar House in Bhaktapur.

Everywhere you look there's an enduring Australian connection. This matters.

In Bhutan, I was the first Australian ministerial visitor since 2010. In Thimphu I received an audience with the Fourth King.

His Majesty and I had a very honest and engaging discussion over an apple pie made to His Majesty's mother's recipe – which was delicious, by the way – about regional peace and stability and our long-standing people-to-people ties.

Demonstrating the pulling power of a world class tertiary education, many of the Bhutanese Cabinet are alumni of Australian universities, including the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

This leads to a level of natural ease for engagement as an Australian minister overseas and readily demonstrates that there is great fondness for Australia across the region.

But the diaspora communities in Australia are the bedrock of these connections.

Nepal is now our fastest growing diaspora community, up to approximately 130,000 and growing and Nepali is the second most spoken language in Tasmania and Albury.

Similarly, Western Australia is home to the largest population of Bhutanese people, outside of Bhutan – this is reflected by the fact that Bhutan's Embassy in Australia is one of only a handful it maintains worldwide.

Finally, I concluded that trip in May by officially opening the Consulate-General in Kolkata.

Our Prime Minister had just been in New Delhi the week before.

My visit to Kolkata was about demonstrating that Australia's engagement with India is broad, diverse and sophisticated.

India is a big place. To truly capitalise on its opportunities, our diplomacy must reflect that.

I met West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who, as this audience will know, is one of India's most prominent female leaders.

Our relationship with India has received a lot of headlines.

There's obviously incredible personal rapport between our Prime Ministers…

…but it's backed up by a strong impetus from both sides to keep the momentum going. Some recent measures include:

  • entry into force of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement last year;
  • a shared ambition for an early conclusion of our Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement;
  • a new Australian Consulate-General in Bengaluru – India's Silicon Valley – and India's intention to open a full Consulate-General in Brisbane; and
  • a new Centre for Australia-India Relations in Australia.

Finally, it's worth noting that India is not only our bilateral partner but also our Quad partner, and like us, is committed to an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific where sovereignty is respected.

This Government strongly believes that South Asia and the Indian Ocean region are integral to our interests and our future.

If there is one through-line to everything I've said today, it is that Australia is an engaged partner in the region.

This is partly why Australia is looking forward to hosting the next Indian Ocean Conference in 2024…

… the first time we will do so in this forum's history.

It's a concrete demonstration of our commitment to our region, and we look forward to discussing how we can work more closely together to pursue a peaceful stable and prosperous region.

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