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ASEAN Is Central To Indo-Pacific Security And Peace And Stability; QUAD Exist Side By Side: Harinder Sidhu, Australia's High Commissioner

BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha speaks with Harinder Sidhu, the spirited Australia high Commissioner who has initiated many such action points.

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Australia’s role in the Indo - Pacific is increasingly becoming important with the implications of the fading of US strategic predominance and the sharpening ambition of China to become the predominant power in the region. Both Australia and India support a rules based international order. Opportunity in scaling trade through RCEP is underway and possibility of furthering the defence cooperation will redefine the relations. BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha speaks with Harinder Sidhu, the spirited Australia high Commissioner who has initiated many such action points.

In Osaka, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sideline of the G20 Summit. What did they discuss?
They had a very good conversation, and you would have seen the tweets, recently they posted their selfie, it’s been clear from the start that both the prime ministers have a great relationship from the start, there is a great deal of positive elements in the relationship that we have together. They had a short bilateral meeting in which they discussed pretty much everything, first – ways through which we can expand our economic relationship, we just put out our Indian economic strategy, India is working on a counterpart strategy. Second is, we talked about global economic environment, including our shared commitment to ARSEC. Third, we talked about the ways to deepen the security cooperation between the two countries. These are all the things which we talked about

Democratic nations -Australia, Japan, India and the United States came together and proposed this idea- QUAD, a mechanism about maintaining the sanctity of rule based maritime freedom.  But it seems to be on the paper and Australia seems to be a little muted about QUAD. Do you see QUAD as a robust mechanism for the Indo Pacific and turning into an overarching institution? 
I find it very strange that you make that comment about Australia because I don't think that's true. We are very keen supporters of the QUAD as there are of many other small group mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific. We see that the QUAD but even our trilateral engagement with India and Japan or India and Indonesia are all very important ways of building trust and building confidence amongst all of us sharing our views making sure we're all on the same page about the sorts of things that we care about you know which is the rules based order and sharing our perspectives that way we can all come together and have a common view so, take for example the  ASEAN Leaders Summit which happened on the 22nd of June, ASEAN leaders issued an outlook for the Indo-Pacific. We very warmly welcome that because there is nothing in that actually deviates from the sorts of things that Australia talks about with other partners in the QUAD or tri laterally or in other small groups or even in regional groups.



So, the other element that we discuss with regards to the QUAD is keeping South China Sea and Indian Ocean free under the international rules of the freedom of navigation. What is your take on this?
What we're talking about the kind of Indo-Pacific we want, and the South China Sea is one element but it's not the only element. On the South China Sea. I think all the QUAD members and many other countries alongside ASEAN share a similar view which is that from Australia's perspective while Australia does not have a direct interest in the South China Sea, we have a broader global interest and so does India. This interest in making sure that behaviour in the South China Sea is consistent with the international rules under the UN Convention on the law of the sea and that countries are able to freely use the South China Sea as a very vital part of the global trading and strategic structure. Freely and openly as it's intended under the international rules. That's really what we've said very clearly. And so of course we've been very vocal.

But do you see it as the number one overarching entity with shared values and a number one guiding principle what we call it QUAD?
I wouldn’t use that language. I think the QUAD is an important part of global and regional strategic architecture. I don't think it's the primary part. In fact, code partners are very clear to say that ASEAN is central to Indo-Pacific security and peace and stability. We said it explicitly in all our statements after the last QUAD last two I think we've been very clear about that

 So, the QUAD is the sub-element to that?
Not a sub element but it exists by the side.

Australia has asked India to play a greater role in shaping the economic architecture of the Indo-Pacific region and help successfully conclude talks to forge a new regional trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). What are the bottlenecks?

So, look, in all my years as a diplomat, I have not seen regional or international trade agreement be concluded quickly. These are long and slow negotiations that are carefully done because really, what you have to do is to strike a balance over a number of countries. I think RCEP is very important because it is not just a trade agreement, it is about integrating the economies better and smoothing the relationships between the economies. In the Indo-Pacific region, India is a very important part of this because India can bring substance and balance to that to that agreement. And, I think it's very important that India is in that. India can play a very powerful role in RECEP. And if India is prepared to be open and constructive in this negotiation, I think it opens an opportunity for India to really demonstrate economic leadership in the region. So, I said this, yes on one level a trade agreement but quite another level it's an agreement which actually creates economic structure and leadership opportunities in the region as well.



India has already a huge trade deficit with China-$60 –billion. It is alleged that RCEP will further widen the gap. How do you look at India’s position in the framework which is playing by the rules of the international trade? 
So, I can see and understand a worry that entering a trade agreement in which China is a power could expose the Indian economy. I understand that concern but it really does depend on how you look at the agreement. You can actually say, entering this agreement is a risk for us. It opens it up for us or you can say it's an opportunity that RCEP now opens to India and all these economies in the region. So, creating a trade agreement is not going to bring trade by itself. What brings trade is how you use that agreement to your advantage. So, Indian negotiators are fairly tough negotiators. They are negotiating for the benefit of India. And so, they will come out with an agreement that will actually deliver benefits to India if they do that. The agreement on its own won't deliver those benefits. What the government needs to do and what business needs to do is to use the agreement and start to export. There's a focus on export orientation for India as a means of driving growth. That's exactly where I think this needs to go. If you have a policy of export orientation and if you have businesses exporting and you have a trade agreement that opens access to all these markets then it can be a very positive.

The Australian government had commissioned an India Economic Strategy to boost the trade. It had set up a trade target of $100 billion by 2035. What are the plans and investment for India?
 We already have over something at $15 billion in investment in India already. So, let me just be clear. The India Economic Strategy was an independent report that was published by Peter Varghese. It was a report that was presented to the Australian Government. The Australian Government has considered that report and is working through the recommendations - 91 recommendations in the report. So, we think, it's a very positive piece of work and it is a roadmap for how we can build a bilateral relationship. That report sets out three big targets. One is that Australia and India should try to triple the two-way trade volumes. In fact, actually, we are very much on the path to doing that and two-way trade grew by 10 per cent last year and has been growing at a five-year trend rate of 15 per cent so it's growing really fast very rapid growth. And that's in both directions by the way not just Australian exports but Indian exports to Australia also grew by 10 percent. So, these are big numbers. Secondly, it says that India has many opportunities for investment from Australia that we should try to increase. Australia's investment India is targeted up to 100 billion by 2030. That's a target. What is really needed is the right incentives to improve.



I think they need to be more incentive to put in place to attract that capital. What kind of incentive? Well, you know, I think certainty in regulation contractual enforcement, speed of resolution of disputes and ability to do business smoothly and easily. We're starting to see much more interest in India by the Australian business system.

Indo- Australia Defence and maritime cooperation are the prophesied area but that is limited to defence exercise.  Do we see any Indo- Australia joint collaboration/projects building capability together in defence?

I think that might come.  Australia is also not a big manufacturer of defence but what you're trying to build up system. So, I mean, I think in principle that's feasible in practice. We'd have to see item by item. I think what we would be able to do. But I don't think there's any barrier to that kind of cooperation

Both nations are developing defence industry and building capabilities. There are various proposals like the one knows as MMRCA which India wants to develop next generation fighter aircrafts. So, can India- Australia come together and work on technology and share cost? 
I think these are very big projects. They have long lead times. There's often a long process before you even get to something like that. But all I'm saying is that there is really heightened level of trust between Australia and India in the defence sphere. Our chief of defence force basically is Chief of Defence Staff, and he visited first time in India.  So, our most senior military leader, our Chief of Air Force visited. We had the largest bilateral exercise that we have ever done with India.  So, as I said that was many years in the planning. So, we will continue to do these things on a steady but I mean seriously, it was a very large very sophisticated very complex exercise which we could only do off the back of all the other defence engagement we've had up to date because the level of confidence between and trust between our two militaries is now at a point where we're able to do something like that.

 Will Australia partner with India on PM Modi’s call on forging a global alliance against terrorism? 
Well, we are very deeply concerned about terrorism. You know over 80 Australians were lost in the Bali terrorist attack in 2002. We have seen many issues from violent extremism in Australia to foreign fighters on our soil. Like India, we have a very deep concern about this. We think we can each learn a great deal from each other. We can learn a great deal from India. We have a very active series of engagements in counter-terrorism. We have a joint longstanding working group on counter-terrorism with India. We have an ambassador for counter-terrorism so the Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism leads these talks. So, these are very deep institutions which we have been doing together for a great deal of time. We've been working on cyber terrorism. And those sorts of things you saw in G-20 that our governments led the Osaka declaration of countering terrorism on the Internet. After the Christchurch attacks we are very concerned about the weaponization of the Internet for terrorist purposes. So, we're really working very hard on that as well.  So, all that is to say there is a very strong basis for Australia and India to work together on terrorism. We would we are absolutely open to doing more with India in this space and we will examine you know whatever proposal that go forward very closely to see what we can do contribute to that.


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