‘On the same team’
Visiting New Delhi last week, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs Marise Payne spoke to Raj Chengappa about her mission to strengthen strategic and economic partnerships with India in the Indo-Pacific region. Excerpts from the interview:
QIndia-Australia relations were long characterised by mutual indifference. Has that changed?
A. It has changed significantly in recent times. The tangible aspects of that [are in] the development of Australia’s India Economic Strategy by Peter Varghese, a former high commissioner. It sets up 500 pages in great depth on the fundamentals of this relationship, how it has grown and will continue to grow. Its recommendation has been embraced with great enthusiasm by my government.
Q. One of India’s grievances is that Australian exports dominate bilateral trade.
A. We are a very open market and receptive to greater Indian engagement. Part of the work behind the India Economic Strategy is to address opening up those markets. There is a very significant focus right now on completing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) strategy which will address a lot of the barriers to more open trade.
Q. The biggest elephant in the room is China, and that has impacted our relations. How do you view this triangle? A. China is Australia’s largest trading partner—that is a fundamental of our relationship. At the same time, we have a well-developed engagement based on mutual respect and a robustness where we can air our differences privately and constructively because there’ll always be differences. But developing the RCEP and ensuring those markets are open will contribute to the stability and security so important to India and Australia.
Q. One of the areas India and Australia are looking at is military relations and the quadrilateral security arrangement.
A. I have been very pleased with the progress of the meetings occurring in the informal Quad arrangement: the United States, Australia, India and Japan, to ensure we are looking at those key issues of stability, security and prosperity. We have a very strong and excellent naval exercise with India bilaterally, AUSINDEX, and we’ll see it again this year as part of our task force visit to the region, Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019. It will be the largest task force to leave Australian shores in a long time, with port visits in Vizag and in Chennai. The relationship building between the Australian and Indian defence forces is very important.
Q. Australia has finally agreed to export nuclear fuel to India, but it has not reached us yet. Is there a roadblock on the supply of uranium to India? A. The agreement is extant and think will progress during 2019. Our government is a strong supporter of India’s energy security; I reassured minister [Sushma] Swaraj of that. We also continue to be a strong supporter of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and that support remains in place. Q. Are you also having a word with China on this?
A. Well, we have a lot of conversations with many other partners but you can be assured of our continuing support.
Q. Have the uncertainties of the Trump era unsettled dynamics in the Pacific?
A. I am naturally disappointed to see my friend and former colleague General Mattis leave the role of Secretary of Defense, but I don’t see a change in the approach of the Pentagon, of the State Department to implementing the policies upon which we all agree, that is contributing to security and to stability.
Q. Your response to India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism from Pakistan?
A. There must be no tolerance of extremist or terrorist behaviour because it doesn’t stay domestic, it impacts us all. India and Australia have experienced terrorist activity in our own backyards, on our own shores, and we have to be ever vigilant.
Q. What is Australia’s stand on Afghanistan and the possibility of an American withdrawal there? A. Historically, Australia has made an enormous contribution in Afghanistan in terms of the case for peace; indeed, we have lost over 40 young Australians there. It’s Australia’s longest continuous military conflict. Although there is more to do, I think it would be of great concern to Australia if key partners were to change directions at this point of time.
Q. And, finally, on the delicate matter of cricket…
A. When you’re playing the best team in the world, it’s a pleasure to watch their skill. I had the opportunity to sit through every stroke of Mr Pujara’s innings in Sydney, and I can only pay the highest compliments in terms of his ability to withstand the Australian bowling onslaught and the Australian onfield onslaught. There was great relations, great repartee between the two teams.