Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Paper by Stephen Smith MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, presented at the launch of ASPI's report: 'Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean'


31 March 2010

Dr Michael Chaney, Chancellor, University of Western Australia.

Peter Abigail, Executive Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Distinguished guests. Ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to launch this new ASPI report, Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean.

I congratulate the report's authors — Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin — for producing a timely analysis of a subject that, given its strategic importance, deserves greater attention.

That the Indian Ocean region is of critical strategic importance to Australia is substantially underappreciated.

The countries of the Indian Ocean rim are home to more than 2.6 billion people, almost 40 per cent of the world's population.

The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water in the world. Australia has the largest maritime jurisdiction of any Indian Ocean country.

The security of its waters goes to the heart of Australia's national interests.

Indian Ocean shipping routes are vital to Australia's economic interests, particularly for the energy and

resources that meet rising demand in the Middle East, India and China.

Despite its importance, Australia has, regrettably, neglected the Indian Ocean region.

This has not always been so, but it has certainly been the case in the recent past.

In the Asia-Pacific Century when economic, political, military and strategic influence is moving to our part of the world, this has to be rectified.

We need to look west, as well as east.

In Western Australia we have long appreciated that Australia is a country with significant Indian Ocean as well as Pacific interests.

As the gateway to Australia for this region, we understand that our economic strength reflects our willingness and success in engaging with the fast-growing economies and major markets to our west.

For this reason I am delighted that Perth will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next year.

In making this announcement I said that "Australia is an Indian Ocean rim country and Perth is an Indian Ocean rim capital".

An Indian Ocean CHOGM will be an important opportunity for the region.

It will bring unprecedented focus on the challenges and opportunities of this region.

Strategic Issues

The presence of large and growing naval powers, as well as transnational security issues including piracy, requires that we put the Indian Ocean alongside the Pacific Ocean at the heart of our maritime strategy and defence planning.

The proportion of world energy supplies passing through critical transport choke points, including the Straits of Malacca, the Straits of Hormuz, and the Suez Canal will increase in the coming years.

The Defence White Paper noted that the Indian Ocean already ranks among the busiest highways for global trade and it will become a crucial global trading thoroughfare in the future, particularly in energy.

For these reasons Australia has become a member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), an initiative of the Indian Navy.

The symposium's aim is to cooperate on regional maritime concerns in an area where security architecture is limited.

We are also working in key areas where ASPI's report notes that there are emerging risks and challenges which require our attention and careful management, such as

climate change, combating piracy, management of fisheries and other natural resources.

There is no doubt that there is a lot more to be done.

We need, for example, to examine the architecture of the region.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, known as IOR-ARC, is the region's largest grouping.

Its interests are as diverse as its broad membership.

There are many issues that IOR-ARC members could work collaboratively on, including fisheries management, disaster management, education, tourism, and agriculture.

As a founding member, we look forward to working with the IOR-ARC Chair and other members to increase the relevance and focus of its activities.

One issue on which countries in this region are working closely together is in the development of an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System.

Australia holds the vice chair of the group within UNESCO charged with developing this vital system.

Last year, the joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre began providing bulletins to regional centres in the Indian Ocean.

This initiative built on Australia's longstanding engagement in disaster management, mitigation and preparedness, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Now, Australia, through Geoscience Australia, is talking with countries in the Gulf to explore opportunities for cooperation, particularly on issues like disaster warnings, as earthquakes in one region could cause tsunamis in another, including in the Gulf.

Rapid population growth and infrastructure challenges in many Indian Ocean rim countries, combined with climate change, could intensify natural resource and food security pressures in coming years, such as depleting vital fish stocks and lowering agricultural production.

Australia is working with others on the important fisheries issues.

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission was set up in 1996 to provide a regional fisheries framework for commercially valuable tuna and billfish, amid concern the resources are being over-exploited.

The total catch in the Indian Ocean has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, reaching more than 1 million tonnes, or 26 per cent of the global tuna catch in 2007.

The trend in increasing catches has continued despite the implementation of two international instruments designed to protect highly migratory or straddling fish stocks, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In short, there is a need, and much scope, for closer and more effective cooperation on a range of significant issues.

It is clear that much can be accomplished when the region comes together to cooperate — the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami is evidence of that.

This leads to an important point.

While Australia's foreign and trade policy focus has traditionally been oriented towards the Asia-Pacific, since it came to office the Government has established a more comprehensive approach that recognises the diverse regions of the Indian Ocean rim and Australia's interests in closer Indian Ocean engagement.

This has meant forging stronger relations within the region in a targeted way: strengthening our bilateral relationships with key regional countries on one hand; and upgrading our engagement with regional groupings on the other.

South Asia

want to set out the progress we're making right across the sub-regions of the Indian Ocean rim, starting with our neighbours in South Asia.

The Australian Government has made enhancing foreign and trade policy with South Asia a priority.

As a result of closer engagement, Australia has been invited by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the SAARC, to participate as an observer.

Australia will be represented at the SAARC Summit for the first time in Bhutan next month, in April this year.

SAARC will present an important opportunity for Australia to engage South Asian governments annually at the highest levels and enhance cooperation through practical and mutually beneficial regional projects.

Australia's bilateral relationships with all the countries of South Asia have also grown in breadth and depth, from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives.

The Government has done much to progress our relations with India.

It is clear that India is once again assuming the influence reflecting its economic size and strength, its strategic weight and its rich history.

We have elevated our relationship with India to the front line of our bilateral relationships.

We both understand that there is much we can do together to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

Through our new strategic partnership, announced by Prime Minister Rudd and Prime Minister Singh in November last year, we are taking advantage of our convergence of interests and our shared wish to play a constructive role in world affairs.

Australia and India have finalised a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation and are pursuing a feasibility study into a possible free trade agreement between Australia and India.

My visit to India earlier this month, my third as Foreign Minister, was aimed at strengthening our strategic partnership and included discussion our Strategic Partnership, on the Commonwealth Games and safety of Indian students.

Pakistan is a strategically important country.

It is critically located at the intersection of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

It has the second largest Muslim population in the world, and on current projections will overtake the larger Muslim population of Indonesia by mid-century.

What happens in Pakistan directly affects the security of the region and Australia's long-term national interests.

It has a significant bearing on our ability to make progress in Afghanistan, where about 1550 Australian troops are deployed.

Since the Government came to office, it has increased its engagement with Pakistan. This is a key example of our growing proactive engagement in the Indian Ocean region.

I visited Pakistan in February 2009 — the first visit by an Australian Foreign Minister in more than a decade — to enhance bilateral relations and urge decisive action by Pakistan to dismantle extremist networks.

Pakistan faces complex and urgent security, economic, humanitarian and political challenges. The threat of terrorism and extremism has become so severe that even President Zardari himself has described it as a threat to Pakistan's very existence.

Australia recognises the sacrifices and loss of life made by the Pakistan Government, military and people as they stare down terrorism.

As a founding member of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, Australia is strongly committed for the long term

to support and work with Pakistan as a partner to strengthen its security, economy and its democracy.

Australia has doubled the number of Australia-based training positions for Pakistani defence personnel to more than 140 places and doubled our development assistance to total $120 million over the period 2009-2011.

As I outlined in my Ministerial Statement to Parliament this month, Australia is promoting strengthened humanitarian and diplomatic support for the people of Sri Lanka.

We are working with Sri Lanka to meet its political and humanitarian challenges and to "win the peace" after decades of military conflict.

We have responded generously to the humanitarian challenges facing Sri Lanka.

We are committed to working with Sri Lanka to build a peaceful and prosperous future for all Sri Lankans.

We are also working together with Sri Lanka and other countries in the region to address the issue of people smuggling, both bilaterally and through groupings such as the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Transnational Crime.

Looking further west across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf region, Australia shares a commitment to stability and economic growth with the six Gulf countries.

We also cooperate on strengthening regional and international security and countering the threats posed by terrorism and piracy.

We work closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the premier regional body.

Australia wants to strengthen further our relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

To that end, Australia and the GCC have agreed to hold a regular Foreign Ministers' Strategic Dialogue, the first of which we expect will take place this year.

Australia's engagement with the GCC — our ninth largest trading partner in 2008-09 — is underpinned by growing trade and people-to-people links, and shared interests in regional stability.

To maximise the potential of our economic relationship, Australia is negotiating a free trade agreement with the GCC.

We have also taken important steps to re-engage with the nations of Africa, reflecting that, for too long, Australia has not given Africa the priority it deserves.

Until recently, the Australian private sector had been quicker to recognise the economic importance of Africa than our public sector.

Today, more than 150 Australian minerals and petroleum resources companies, many from here in Western Australia, have interests in more than 40 African countries, with current and prospective investment estimated at $20 billion.

Australia's trade with Africa is also growing, with two-way trade valued at close to $5 billion.

There are important strategic, geopolitical and economic reasons for enhancing our engagement with Africa.

We are focusing on economic, social and political interests that we can advance together, with African nations comprising an important and growing influence in multilateral fora.

The Australian Government is committed to broadening and deepening our engagement with Africa, bilaterally, regionally and through the African Union.

Over the past two years, we have set about

Since taking office in 2007, Australia has established diplomatic relations with another 10 countries in Africa.

We have also expanded our diplomatic missions in Abuja, Accra, Cairo, Harare and Nairobi.

We've used high-level visits in both directions to further our common interests and strengthen cooperation on pressing global challenges.

In January 2009, for example, it was my privilege to be the first Australian Foreign Minister to address a meeting of

the African Union Foreign Ministers' Executive Council Meeting in Addis Ababa.

And in January of this year I became the first Australian Foreign Minister in more than seven years to visit South Africa, a country which remains by far our most important economic partner in Africa.

For more than 35 years Australia has enjoyed particularly strong relationships with the key South East Asian groupings and institutions.

In 1974 we became ASEAN's first official dialogue partner.

Australia was also a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994 and of the East Asia Summit in 2005.

These bodies continue to play a central role in promoting regional security, regional prosperity and regional economic integration.

Importantly, last year Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN concluded negotiations for a landmark free trade agreement, which came into effect on 1 January 2010.

Covering more than 610 million people and a combined GDP of over A$3 billion, AANZFTA is the largest FTA Australia has entered into.

It is also the most comprehensive FTA that ASEAN has signed, eliminating tariffs on 90-100 per cent of tariff lines for all but the three least developed parties to the FTA.

Australia's bilateral relationships with Southeast Asian countries are among our most comprehensive and important.

Indonesia merits a special mention, not least because the Indonesian archipelago occupies a crucial strategic location in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean.

The visit to Australia by Indonesia's President earlier this month underscored just how much our bilateral relationship with Indonesia has developed in recent times.

Today, ours is a mature partnership between two robust, open democracies that increasingly see the world in similar ways.

Our common interests with Indonesia offer opportunities to work closely together in regional and global forums for our common good, from APEC to the EAS to the WTO and the G20.

Moreover, our areas of cooperation are expanding quickly.

They now encompass climate change, defence relations, counter-terrorism and people-smuggling, strong economic links, growing people-to-people ties and Australia's largest development partnership.


Ladies and gentlemen.

On the day I was sworn in as Foreign Minister in December 2007, in my first speech as Foreign Minister I said that Australia needed to look West.

I said that when the sun sets in the West, it sets on the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific.

The Government has made significant progress in terms of our strategic engagement with our neighbours and countries to our West.

We know there's a lot more to do, and that includes in and with IOR ARC.

That ASPI has undertaken this work is a reflection both of the importance of this engagement and the opportunities that remain to do more.

I commend the report to you.

The Government will give very serious consideration to the advice that it contains. It gives me great pleasure to declare it officially launched.

Thank you.