Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles upon his arrival in Goa on Monday (Image courtesy: Twitter/@RichardMarlesMP)
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles has said that his ongoing visit to India reflects the conviction and the commitment by the new Anthony Albanese government to place India "at the heart of Australia’s approach" to the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Marles is the first high-ranking official from Australia to land in New Delhi after Albanese was sworn in as the 31st Prime Minister of the country, last month.
Hours after assuming office on May 23, Albanese had flown to Japan to attend the Quad Leaders' Summit where he also held detailed talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific region and further strengthening of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries.
Currently on a four-day visit to India, the Australian Defence Minister said on Wednesday that one of the priorities of the new government back home is India and Canberra must "deepen its understanding of, and engagement with, one of the world's oldest continuous civilisations, the soon to be most populous nation in the world, and a deeply consequential power".
Malres made the observation during his speech at the National Defence College in New Delhi after holding a bilateral meeting with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh earlier in the day.
While he maintained that it would be wrong to assume that China is at the centre of every decision being made to deeper Australian-Indian security cooperation, Marles acknowledged that Beijing's military build-up is now "the largest and most ambitious" seen by any country since the end of the Second World War.
Stating that insecurity is what drives an arms race, the Australian minister said that it is critical that China's neighbours do not see this build-up as a risk for them.
"India’s own experience illustrates this maxim more than most. The assault on Indian forces along the Line of Actual Control in 2020 was a warning we should all heed. Australia stood up for India's sovereignty then and continues to do so now. It is vital that China commits to resolving this dispute through a process of dialogue consistent with international law. The global rules based order matters everywhere, including in the highest place on earth," he said during his speech.
He emphasised that the world – and the region in particular – faces the "most serious strategic confluence of events" since the end of the Second World War with intensifying strategic and geo-economic contest, the return of war in Europe, growing climate risks, and enduring pandemic impacts, all of which are driving inflation, supply chain shocks, and de-globalisation.
Quoting Australian Professor Rory Medcalf, the Australian minister said that the region is "… too vast and complex for any country to succeed in protecting its interests alone. There will be a premium on partnerships…". Navigating both opportunity and risk in this environment, Marles said, won't be straightforward, and even harder if doing it alone.
Encountering the "toughest strategic environment in over 70 years", Marles said that Australia will work most closely with countries which share the principles and institutions of representative government – democracy and the rule of law.
"AUKUS (the decision by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to develop an Australian nuclear powered submarine) is just one partnership. And when I look out at the world, India stands out.
"This relationship is an old one, forged more than 100 years ago as allies in the crucible of war. But today, the characteristics necessary for deep defence cooperation speak even more loudly: we are of, and share a commitment to an open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific region; we are strategically aligned; we share a common commitment to the principles and institutions of democratic government; and most importantly we both understand that the history of human progress and civilisation can be characterised by the extent to which a nation loves cricket," added the Australian Defence Minister.
The geography of Australia and India, Marles mentioned, makes them stewards of the Indian Ocean region - an ocean which accounts for about half the world's container traffic and is a crucial conduit for global trade.
While asserting that India's location makes it the natural leader of this region "which Australia strongly supports", the minister reflected that Australia's cooperation in the Indian Ocean is underdone and it can "afford to do more", not only bilaterally, but also trilaterally with others such as Indonesia.
India and Australia, he said, will need both wisdom and strength if they are to successfully navigate the complex strategic circumstances faced in the Indo-Pacific.
The Australian minister also commended India for providing the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support to Kiribati and Tonga earlier this year. He told the gathering that as Kiribati, an island country in the central Pacific Ocean, battled the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia and India worked in lockstep, with Australia arranging a flight to deliver India's donation of pulse oximeters, personal protective equipment and emergency medication. Australian aircraft also helped deliver India's disaster relief supplies to the Kingdom of Tonga following the undersea volcano eruption and Tsunami that devastated that country in January this year.
"We want to work with friends like India, which brings its own unique history to that region and which places such value on respect for sovereignty and national integrity," said Marles.
Mentioning PM Modi's address at the World Economic Forum in 2018 where he listed climate change as one of the biggest threats for mankind, the Deputy Australian PM said that here too, Australia and India have an opportunity to collaborate as the Albanese government has a renewed focus on climate change, which will now factor into Australia's defence planning and defence diplomacy.
"There is opportunity under our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to make inroads into clean energy technologies. Our cooperation has vast potential to see us manufacture and deploy ultra low-cost solar and clean hydrogen, offering affordable and reliable access to energy for all. As nations contend with growing energy demand, climate change and unstable supply chains, India and Australia's collaboration has the potential to engender security solutions for the security challenges we all face," he said.