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ASEAN Key To Indo-Pacific Security: Harinder Sidhu, Australia High Commissioner

Australia’s role in the Indo - Pacific region is increasingly becoming important due to the fading of US strategic predominance and the growing ambition of China. BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha speaks with Harinder Sidhu, the Australia High Commissioner who has initiated action points towards Indo-Australian defence cooperation. Excerpts:

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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 many other small group mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific. 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 and making sure we’re all on the same page about the sorts of things that we care about which is the rule-based order. Through such initiatives and sharing perspectives, we all can come together and have a common view. For example the ASEAN Leaders Summit which happened on the 22nd of June, ASEAN leaders issued an outlook for the Indo-Pacific countries. We very warmly welcome that because there is nothing that deviates from the sorts of things that Australia talks about with its other partners .

The other element that we discuss with regards to the QUAD is keeping the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean free under the international rules of the freedom of navigation. What is your take on this?

We’re talking about the kind of Indo-Pacific agreement 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 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 interests us 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 the countries can 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.  We’ve said this very clearly and we have been vocal on this.

But do you see QUAD  as the number one overarching entity with four countries with shared values and a number one guiding principle?

I wouldn’t use that language. I think the QUAD is an important part of global and regional strategic architecture. But, I don’t think it’s the primary part. In fact, core partners are very clear to say that ASEAN is central to Indo-Pacific security, peace and stability. We have said it explicitly in all our statements. 

So, QUAD is the sub-element to that?

Not a sub-element but it exists by the side. 

What has happened to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)?. What are the bottlenecks?

In all my years as a diplomat, I have not seen regional or international trade agreement being concluded quickly. These are long and slow negotiations that are carefully done because a balanced agreement is to be done among several 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 agreement. And I think it’s very important that India is part of this as it can play a powerful role in RCEP. And if India is prepared to be open and constructive in this negotiation, it opens an opportunity for India to demonstrate economic leadership in the region. So, at one level it’s a trade agreement but at another level it’s an agreement which creates economic structure and leadership opportunities in the region as well. 

India already has 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 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 to. I understand that concern but it does depend on how you look at the agreement. However, entering into this agreement is a risk for us. RCEP is an opportunity for us, India and for all the 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 deliver benefits to India. However, the government and businesses need 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 this needs to go. If you have a policy of export orientation and if you have businesses exporting along with a trade agreement that opens access to all the markets then it can be very positive.

The Australian government had commissioned an India Economic Strategy to boost trade. It had set up a trade target of $100 billion by 2035. What are the plans in terms of investment in India?

We have over $15 billion of investment in India already. So the India Economic Strategy was an independent report that was published by Peter Varghese. It’s a very positive piece of work and it is a roadmap for how we can build a bilateral relationship. This report sets out three big targets. One is that Australia and India should try to triple the two-way trade volumes. In fact, we are very much on the path of doing that. The 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 very fast and rapidly in both directions — Indian exports to Australia grew by 10 per cent. Secondly, it says that India has many opportunities for investment from Australia that we should try to increase up to 100 billion by 2030. The need of the hour is the right incentives to improve the relation. 

How can we boost Indo-Australian trade investments?

I think certainty in regulation contractual enforcement, speed of resolution of disputes and ability to do business smoothly and easily are the key areas. We’re starting to see much more interest in India by the Australian business system.

Indo-Australia defence and maritime cooperation is limited to defence exercise. Do we see any collaboration/projects building capability in defence?

I think that might come. Australia is also not a big manufacturer of defence but we are trying to build up the system. So in principle that’s feasible in practice. We’d have to see item by item. But I don’t think there’s any barrier to that kind of cooperation.

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 Australian lives 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 deep concern about this. We think we can each learn a great deal from each other. 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. 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 weaponisation of the Internet for terrorist purposes. So we’re working very hard on that as well. All that is to say there is a very strong basis for Australia and India to work together on terrorism. We are open to working more with India in this space and we will examine all the proposals that go forward very closely to see what we can do to contribute to that.

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