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Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, good morning to you all and thank you Gordon for that warm welcome.
Let me start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet — the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation — and I also pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
It’s also very fitting for me to pay my respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed so much to our nation as service personnel in times of war and peace.
And particularly to Colleen and Ken’s uncles – Louis, Larry, Augustus and Kenneth Hayward – who she spoke about here today.
It is a pleasure to again address this conference, and it is wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues from here in Western Australia, but also over east and overseas. You are all incredibly welcome here and thank you for coming and participating in this conference. I also thank the Perth USAsia Centre, DefenceWest, and the West Australian Government, for putting on this very timely and important conference here today.
It is fitting that today we are discussing the Indo-Pacific here in Perth, the gateway to the Indian Ocean. The Indo-Pacific is dynamic, evolving, growing. But it is not without its challenges.
Just two days into my job as Defence Minister, at the Shangri La Dialogue it was very clear to me a couple of things. At this conference – which brings together military and policy leaders and thinkers from not only across the region but from across the world – it was clear there was a good sense of the opportunities for us to pursue in the Indo Pacific. But it was also very clear to me from meetings with delegates and from the official speeches was that the region is anxious.
The US-China bilateral relationship is the most globally significant and it is in no countries best interest to see competition become adversarial. So today, I would like to take this opportunity to outline how I see some of the challenges we face. How we are responding as a nation to those challenges. And how we’re working to ensure that this nation is best placed to take advantage of the opportunities that are on offer.
As you can see from the map behind me, Australia is a three ocean nation. The Southern Ocean is perhaps not as frequently thought about as others. But Australia’s Antarctic Territory means that we have a deep interest in security in the Southern Ocean.
We have the Pacific Ocean to our east. The ocean that is the focus of our Pacific Step Up that is seeing an enhancement of Australia’s longstanding engagement with the island nations of the Pacific.
And, of course the Indian Ocean the one I will focus on today.
An ocean that defines not just our security and economic outlook but our place in the world. That is why we now talk about the Indo-Pacific region. A concept that has developed from our location at the fulcrum of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The Indian Ocean has not always received the same level of attention in our strategic thinking as the Pacific Ocean. Australia has tended to see itself as a Pacific Ocean state.
It was not until 1987 that Australia adopted a two-Ocean navy policy, prompting a significant re-posturing of Australian forces to the West. And we owe Governor Beazley a large vote of thanks for his leadership in realising that position.
Today, up to half of our Navy fleet is based permanently in Western Australia, including all six of the Collins submarines. Our equities in the Indian Ocean are clear:
- Approximately 42% of our exports by value depart from Western Australia.
- Our Exclusive Economic Zone extends deep into the Indian Ocean – containing the strategically valuable territories of Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islands.
- The Indian Ocean is home to five of Australia’s top 15 trading partners: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
- And our LNG sector is booming largely thanks to projects located on our North Western Shelf.
For over 70 years Australians have reaped the economic and security benefits of a benign security environment in the Indian Ocean. But the strategic landscape is rapidly shifting. We are living through the biggest realignment of the geopolitical landscape since World War II.
Like the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is increasingly characterised by rising strategic competition and intensifying great power rivalries. We have seen a proliferation of naval activity and a race to secure access to strategic ports right across the Indian Ocean rim, which afford both economic and strategic advantage.
India has emerged as an economic powerhouse and is demonstrating leadership in a way that reflects its size and democratic values. China has rapidly expanded its Indian Ocean footprint – establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. And Beijing’s burgeoning infrastructure investments under the Belt and Road and Maritime Silk Road initiatives are bringing profound change.
Other players such as the US, France, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Japan are also playing a bigger role. The emerging presence of a wider range of strategic players is creating a more congested and contested regional environment. But while competition is growing, large swaths of the Indian Ocean remain ungoverned. It is in these ungoverned seams where coercive statecraft, greyzone tactics, and transnational crime have the potential to flourish.
So amidst this back drop of rising opportunity and increasing risk what are Australia’s defence interests in the Indian Ocean? And how do we protect them?
Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision is for a region that is free, open and inclusive. Where disputes are resolved peacefully, without force or coercion. We want an Indian Ocean where international rules and norms are respected. Where investment and infrastructure builds growth and development, rather than indebtedness and reliance. Where countries operate transparently and where the sovereignty of all states, big and small, is protected.
We also want a region where the security of critical resources is guaranteed, in particular the supply of rare earth elements and other critical minerals. Australia is the world’s second largest producer of rare-earths and is also endowed with critical minerals.
Africa, our distant Indian Ocean neighbour, is another key source of these resources for global markets. Many of them are used in high-end and military technologies, these resources are now considered essential for the economic and industrial development of the world’s major economies.
Their supply is a strategic issue, not just a commercial one. And I have to say, I was very pleased to see this morning the announcement by Northern Minerals, they have entered into an offtake agreement with Thyssenkrupp. I think that is a very important development in this area.
So how do we rise to the challenges facing our region? I believe we do it in four ways:
- strengthening our regional partnerships
- increasing our presence
- building collaboration; and
- investing in our defence capability
All four of these are subtle but very powerful elements of our own national strategy for the security, prosperity and peaceful trade in the Indo-Pacific.
First and foremost, Australia will deepen defence partnerships with regional nations who share our interests and democratic principles. For over 70 years, the United States has supported economic growth and protected norms and principles that have underwritten the region’s security.
The Australia-US alliance is and continues to be our most important Defence relationship, and it also remains the cornerstone of our defence and our security policies. The Indian Ocean was a key point of discussion at the recent AUSMIN consultation in Sydney just a week ago.
We committed to work more closely, including in the Indian Ocean to support:
- sustainable, resilient infrastructure;
- adherence to international law; and
- cooperation with key regional partners.
We discussed two regional partners in particular.
Firstly, increasing both of our defence relationships with India. Our Defence relationship with India has flourished over the last decade. The figures on our defence activities tell the story. In 2014 we conducted 11 defence activities together. By 2018 this had more than tripled to 38 bilateral activities. And we’re on track to maintain this high watermark of engagement again in 2019. The scale and complexity of this year’s bilateral navy exercise AUSINDEX saw the largest Australian task group ever sent to India.
Focused on anti-submarine warfare the exercise demonstrated the high degree of trust between our two countries. But there is scope to further increase the depth and complexity of our joint activities on land, at sea and in the air domains. I have extended an invitation to my Indian counterpart to visit Australia later this year to further discuss those relationships, and all going well, to sign new agreements with India.
The second country at AUSMIN we discussed was Indonesia, another country to our immediate north that also straddles both the Indo and the Pacific. Significantly, it is another country in our region that shares our values and adherence to democratic principles and freedoms. Both Australia and Indonesia share a desire for a stable and secure maritime order: one with unimpeded trade; adherence to international law; and freedom of navigation and overflight. We are both respected regional maritime security actors, with good track records in the Indian Ocean.
Australia and Indonesia are actively promoting enhanced cooperation through our respective multilateral maritime security exercises, KAKADU and KOMODO.
We are working closely through the Indian Ocean Rim Association — as well as in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium — to build maritime security cooperation to the benefit us, and the region. It is in Australia’s national interests to see this cooperation with both nations and other partners in the region over the next few years.
The second point was increasing our presence in the Indian Ocean. The ADF has a long and proud history of supporting Indian Ocean security through both military and humanitarian activities.
Our naval ships recently completed their 67th rotation with the Combined Maritime Forces combatting transnational crime in the north west Indian Ocean and the Middle Eastern region; We have supported a range of regional humanitarian and disaster relief activities; And have delivered complex and sustained search and rescue operations in the Indian Ocean. But we need to step-up this engagement through an increased tempo of port visits, engagements and exercises.
In 2019 our premier maritime activity, Indo-Pacific Endeavour, focused for the first time on the Indian Ocean. The task group visited Sri Lanka and then India for Australia’s biannual naval activity, AUSINDEX 2019. It then transited to the Pacific for activities in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.
This underlined the link between these two oceans and our security.
The third aspect of our strategy is building collaboration and the continuous investment in the Indian Ocean’s security architecture. A strong web of regional architecture will promote dialogue, trust and understanding between us and our regional friends and allies’ right across the Indian Ocean Rim. And will better equip the region to deal with political and security challenges that are making them very nervous. The Indian Ocean Rim Association will remain important for strengthening consultation and reinforcing rules-based habits.
The search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 demonstrated how little we know about what goes on in the Indian Ocean. We cannot moderate behaviour in our region, without being able to monitor and track what is occurring above and below its surface. But Australia cannot build this picture alone. We particular welcome India’s recent leadership in this regard. The establishment of an ‘Information Fusion Centre’ for the Indian Ocean Region will help shed light on areas currently unseen.
The fourth strategy that the Government is implementing is investing in capability, because a capable and agile ADF is also critical to achieving our regional vision. The Morrison Government is supporting our ADF to advance and protect our interests across the Indo Pacific. Investing in a capable and potent defence force – one that can provide credible deterrence and withstand and counter coercion – is an integral part of this commitment.
A point I have now made several times about this $200 billion investment by the Morrison Government, on behalf of the Australian taxpayers and citizens is not just to invest in our people, in our defence industry and Australian labour, I see that as a very important bi-product and statement of confidence in Australian industry, but we are actually doing it because we need the capability. When you have a look at the rising range of threats both conventional and new, this capability is necessary which is why we are working with defence industry to make sure that we can realise it.
In conclusion, strategic challenges in our region are increasing. Geopolitics is back. In old ways and new. To respond, we must work more closely with partners across the region and across the globe. And building our links and capability in the Indian Ocean will be crucial to our security.
I have outlined briefly today how the ADF though its partnerships, its presence, its collaboration and its capability across the Indian Ocean is fit to further exploit these opportunities but also protect us against the rising challenges.
And by doing so, the Government ensures it is fulfilling its first duty of securing and defending our nation.