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External Affairs Minister's Remarks at JG Crawford Oration 2021

September 06, 2021


Chancellor, the Hon’ble Julie Bishop
Vice-Chancellor and President Prof. Brian Schmidt
Ladies & gentlemen,

1. It is truly an honour to deliver the JG Crawford Oration 2021 at the Australian National University. As someone who aspired to be its student 45 years ago, I am delighted to be able to connect with it eventually. In ANU’s defence, and I suppose, in my own, they did accept me then and it was my joining the Indian Foreign Service that delayed any association. Sometimes, I have wondered about the road not taken. But I suspect that the choice I made probably enabled me to contribute more to ties between India and Australia.

2. As all of you are aware, Sir John Crawford was an extraordinary figure whose imprint on modern Australia is evident in many ways. As someone contemplating his contributions in a very different world today, I am struck by how the issues on which he worked are now the elements of an emerging order. I refer here especially to the relationships that he built for Australia with Japan and the United States, as well as the contribution he made to India’s development during his World Bank days. He has also been appropriately described as a pioneer in the building of a regional economic and policy community. His exceptional contributions in the fields of trade, industry, agriculture and education put him right at the centre of Australia’s strengths. And I am confident that were he with us today, that very vision and those very domains would have also led him to focus on developments in the Indo-Pacific and the role of the Quad.

3. The world, of course, underwent a profound transformation during Sir John’s life. This was not just the World Wars but also the reconstruction and repositioning that followed the second one, an endeavour in which he was deeply involved. But consider how much has changed since even those times. There is the rise of China, the growth of India, an economic rebalancing with Asia as a driver, the end of the Cold War, changes in the top 20 economies, this list could go on. Developments in American and British politics particularly have added a dramatic aspect to the evolution of the world order.

4. Now, it could not be that very different patterns of production and consumption would leave our world unaffected. But it is much more than that, as we have witnessed quantum shifts along with more organic change. The geo-political turbulence in the Indo-Pacific, the ripple implications of the Afghanistan withdrawal and the larger consequences of the Covid pandemic are three such current examples. Those who connect the dots would surely agree that we are really now at the cusp of something big. As we seek to discern the outlines of what emerges next, there is no question that the Indo-Pacific would be very much at its core.

5. It is something of a paradox that even though Asia has been more dynamic than Europe in the last few decades, its regional architecture is far more conservative. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Europe was very much at the heart of the Cold War and felt its final consequences more directly. And this also opened up the ground for greater strategic experimentation that has led to the European Union as we know it now. In contrast, Asia and the Indo-Pacific are a much vaster expanse with greater diversity and a less collective persona. There are distinct sub-regions such as North-East Asia, South-East Asia, the Indian Sub-continent or Oceania with their particular characteristics and history. Economic progress also unfolded at a differential pace, both between and within these sub-regions. Their focus on growth and modernization led them to take a relatively minimalistic view of the political accompaniment of their economic journey. In the ASEAN and its expanding platforms, the larger world found a comfortable solution to the need for an agreed meeting point. Most important, the deep underpinning to the larger stability provided by a pervasive presence of American power helped to keep this theatre steady till recently. It is now the revisiting of many of these assumptions and attitudes that has started to shape the emergence of the Indo-Pacific.

6. To begin with, there is the reality of the strategic recalibration of the United States. Some of it may arise from its commitments and deployments; but there is also the relative growth of competitors and the increasing complexity of challenges. Both the landscape and the tasking demand a response that cannot be the same as before. Call it America First or a foreign policy for the middle class; the difference in responsibilities, resources, activities and attitude are not possible to obfuscate. The United States is undeniably the premier power of our times and will remain so. Indeed, such is its centrality to the current order that be it ally, competitor, the agnostic or the undecided, none of us can really be indifferent to its posture. There are different ways by which the US is itself coming to terms with its constraints and its challenges. And as we have all seen since 2008, that has not exactly followed a linear path. Some of its answers lie in reprioritizing; others in a more mobile and affordable footprint abroad. Building a technology edge has long worked for it and maintaining that against stiffer competition will be another natural avenue of response. Where the US, as an entrenched power, is understandably struggling is in respect of new manifestations of exerting influence and wielding power. It not only has inherent vulnerabilities but also structural constraints while engaging in these contemporary forms of competition.

7. But what is important to recognize is that in its own unique way, the American polity is going through a serious introspection. That could well result in a different method of engaging the world. Among its policy changes are a greater emphasis on burden sharing and an openness to partners beyond established relationships. Its search for global stability leads it to contemplate new forms of plurilateralism – I believe in Australia you call it minilateralism. And so, events in the Indo-Pacific are unfolding very differently from the collectivism of Europe three decades ago.

8. The second big driver of the changes we see around us is, of course, the impressive growth of Chinese power. There are three autonomous aspects to this phenomenon that need considered analysis. The first is the enormous expansion of Chinese capabilities in virtually every field. The second is a projection pattern that changed beginning with 2009, and then more vigorously, after 2012. The third – and this was particularly apparent during the pandemic – is China’s deep relevance to the global economy. When combined with the other factors, this has witnessed the focused leveraging of all aspects of relationships for strategic purposes. That seamlessness abroad is, after all, a reflection of both a tightly integrated world-view and domestic outlook. So, let us be clear that this is not just about the rise of another power, however major. We have entered a new phase in international relations and the full impact of China’s re-emergence will be felt more than those of major powers before it.

9. These developments centring around the US and China are largely responsible for the concept of Indo-Pacific taking root so rapidly. The irony is that many of us who are perceived as taking the lead are actually coming to terms with a scenario that their actions have created. Looking back, it is apparent that the rationale for Asia-Pacific was primarily an American focus on and primacy in the Far East. The Second World War, the revolution in China, the Korean War, the revival of Japan and the Vietnam War were among its milestones. Relatively, the Indian Ocean became a strategic backwater, though it had its issues of salience. However, as the world globalized and various powers – especially China – started developing a footprint beyond their traditional areas of activities, the separation of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans was less and less tenable. It was not just that China, Japan or ROK were more visible in the Indian Ocean; India’s interests also pulled it more into the Pacific. The ‘near abroad’ of players also began overlapping as they became bigger.

10. At the end of the day, the compulsions of inter-dependence and inter-penetration triumphed over outdated definitions of theatres.Concerns about the well-being of the global commons were also a consideration. Contemporary challenges required like-minded nations to work together, especially once the United States itself acknowledged the limitations of going alone. The Indo-Pacific, in that sense, represents the reality of globalization as much as it does the results of rebalancing. This is also the return of history since economic and cultural inter-penetration between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans existed for centuries prior to 1945. For all the other differences, these changes are to Asia what developments three decades ago were to Europe. And they are still unfolding.

11. A significant contribution to the change in landscape has also been made by India’s Act East policy. Three decades ago, India adopted a more open economic model that helped forge closer ties with the ASEAN and North East Asia. In due course, this opening acquired other dimensions, including those of connectivity, security,education and societal exchanges. The domains of activity may be different but starting from the 1990s, India’s ties with Japan, ASEAN, ROK, and China developed far greater substance and consequently have more higher priority. Australians are, of course, familiar with how our own bilateral cooperation has grown in this very period. What began for India as a solution for an economic crisis has finally ended up as a strategic correction. India trades, travels and interacts much more to the East than it has done since its independence. Here too, there is a falling back to history as there is a long tradition of Indian maritime activity and cultural presence, going all the way upto the Fujian coast of China. Those who have been to Angkor Wat, Borobudur or Myson will certainly attest to these linkages.

12. It is, however, the policy consequences of this correction that is relevant as we consider the emerging Indo-Pacific. The embedding of India in ASEAN-led structures helped create a regular and comfortable interface with others present, including Australia. As vistas eastward kept broadening, economic contacts were supplemented by political and security relationships with those partners who nursed common interests. Equally, platforms like Indian Ocean Rim Association and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium have provided an opportunity for greater socialization of regional players. Even when it came to global issues, those with a similar outlook and shared values naturally tended to congregate together.

13. So, while the entire region grapples with different capacities and new approaches, some are likely to make more progress together than others. The fact is that the days of unilateralism are over, bilateralism has its own limits, and as the Covid reminded us, multilateralism is simply not working well enough. The resistance to reforming international organizations compel us to look for more practical and immediate solutions. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the case for the Quad.

14. The last two decades have seen a real transformation in India’s relations with its three Quad partners: the United States, Japan and Australia. I have had the privilege of being closely associated with each of these exercises. In the case of the US, this process started in President Clinton’s visit in 2000 and accelerated once the Bush Administration decided to remove nuclear impediments to serious cooperation. Nevertheless, there continued to be an overhang from the past on both sides. It has only been recently that we have been able to overcome what has been called as the hesitations of history. The United States today is our leading trade partner and closest collaborator in technology and innovation. The Indian-American community which has been spectacularly successful, represents a unique bridge between our societies. On a range of political matters, there is considerable convergence in our approach. And where security is concerned, the Indian military operates multiple American origin platforms, exercises regularly with its counterpart and holds policy exchanges after decades of distance. The comfort of the bilateral relationship is, in fact, what allows us to work together beyond the narrower confines of our immediate interest.

15. The nature of ties may be different but this is also the case to a great degree between India and Japan. In the past, the very logic that kept the Pacific and the Indian Ocean apart also did the same for our two countries. The interface was largely economic and quite honestly, remained within a limited bandwidth for years. It started acquiring a broader agenda once Japan stepped out and began to take greater interest in world affairs. And as India was no longer encumbered by the Cold War. Some of this was regional convergence, some a shared quest to be represented in the UN Security Council, and part a natural empathy of democratic societies. Especially since 2015, the enhanced quality of ties is reflected in more ambitious projects in defence and nuclear cooperation, connectivity building and third country coordination.

16. The one which has developed most visibly in recent times is that with Australia. Indeed, within a short space of time, it has pretty much closed the gap vis-a-vis others. The two-way Prime Ministerial visits of Abbott and Modi in 2014 opened the gates for cooperation just waiting to happen. Since then, we have seen a great intensity in high-level interactions that included a Modi-Morrison Virtual Summit in June 2020 and regular PM-level conversations even thereafter. It is revealing that our "comprehensive strategic partnership” today covers an annual meeting of PMs, a Foreign Minister’s Dialogue, a 2+2 Defence and Foreign Ministers’ Talks-which, by the way is supposed to happen in the next few days, a Trade Ministerial Commission, an Education Council, an Energy Dialogue and Working Groups in different sectors. And the last Summit, as an example-it produced agreements ranging from maritime collaboration, defence science exchanges and mutual logistics support to cooperation in cyber-enabled critical technology, critical and strategic materials, water resources management, vocational education and training, as well as public administration and governance.

17. Our trade now, stands at USD 20 billion annually, making India your eighth largest partner. And notably, it appears that our Free Trade Agreement negotiations are actually making progress. Australia is a major educational destination for Indian students, who currently number 105,000. The Indian community, estimated at 720,000, is a source of pride for both of us. Our two countries work closely in ASEAN-led forums, in the Commonwealth, in Indian Ocean Rim Association amongst others.

18. The Quad nations are all democratic polities, market economies and pluralistic societies. Apart from that natural understanding that it generates, similarity in the structural aspects of their relationships has helped to foster the platform. In each case, there are regular meetings at the Summit level, designated formally as annual in the case of Australia and Japan. All the bilateral ties now include a 2+2 Defence and Foreign Ministers’ interaction. Again, all four countries are members of ASEAN-led forums, including the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Defence Ministers Meeting. They also strongly subscribe to the centrality of ASEAN in so far as the Indo-Pacific. Between them, these four are involved in multiple trilateral combinations with other partners. In the case of India and Australia, they include those with France, Indonesia and Japan.

19. In many ways, the ease of working together has been increased by other experiences, whether they are bilateral or more collective. That all of them offer mutual logistics support and work on white shipping obviously enables better maritime security coordination. Their shared commitment to UNCLOS 1982 as the constitution of the seas is no less relevant. Similarly, three of them (Japan, Australia and India) being members of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative makes a difference.

20. The working of the Quad takes into account the consequences of globalization, requirements of the global commons and the expression of converging interests. The Malabar exercise is cited most often as its example. But Quad’s expanding agenda affirms a declared intention to promote greater prosperity and ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific-so, it should not be seen narrowly. In the last two years, it has focused on challenges that vary from maritime security, cyber security and disaster response to connectivity and infrastructure, climate action and counter-terrorism. In keeping with the challenges of our times, it has also chosen to get involved with vaccine production, student mobility, resilient supply chains and combating disinformation. This sends a clear message when it comes to the genuine requirements today of the international community.

21. The Pacific Islands offer another interesting example of what can be done through greater coordination among like-minded states. Most of you would be familiar with Australia’s activities, possibly that of the US and Japan as well. So let me talk briefly about what India is doing. We are establishing information technology labs in each of these nations and promoting solar electrification of 2800 houses. Women solar engineers called Solar Mamas have also been trained by us. Our grant assistance, apart from renewable energy and climate-related projects, address community development, agricultural equipment, computers and LED bulbs for schools, dialysis machines, portable saw mills, construction of sea wall and coral farms. We have been responding to natural calamities whether it is Cyclone Yasa, Gita, Hola or Winston. And despatched vaccines for Covid-19 including to Fiji and Nauru bilaterally, as also to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands through the Covax initiative.

22. A similar collaboration can be seen with the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative that Prime Minister Modi announced at the East Asia Summit in 2019. This is envisaged as an open, non-treaty based, inclusive platform for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. It is structure-light and cooperation-heavy, intends to work in tandem with the ASEAN, IORA, BIMSTEC and other organisations. Its seven pillars include maritime security, maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building & resource sharing, disaster risk reduction & management, as well as science, technology & academic cooperation and trade connectivity & maritime transport. So far, Australia has agreed to lead the maritime ecology pillar, Japan the connectivity & transport pillar and France and Indonesia the marine resources pillar. How the IPOI will develop remains to be seen. But it is certainly an example of fresh thinking on regional partnerships that has the potential to take the Indo-Pacific forward.

23. So, even as the tectonic plates of geo-politics are shifting, the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled a sharper crystallization of our thoughts on the challenges that we face. It has called into question the model of globalization that was practised till recently and makes a powerful case for a more de-centralized version. Many of us accept now that the establishment of resilient and reliable supply chains are essential to de-risking the world economy. Related to that, the value of trust and transparency has also gone up significantly. We have all been made much more sensitive to the implications of opacity. Risk aversion has heightened in a world that is now clearly more insecure. Indeed, from many regions, there is talk of greater strategic autonomy to address the problems of over-dependence. What it finally comes down to is the need to create greater global capacities so that pandemic-scale challenges are more effectively met. And the bar for that has also risen higher as many societies have expanded what they visualize as the basic definition of national security. The pandemic experience has also led to greater attention being given to cyber security, supply chains and disinformation. So, it is not just the landscape and the structure of the region that is in flux; it is also, very much, the agenda.

24. Let us, therefore, take stock of what we confront. As it is, a 75-year old world order had run its course and was ripe for change. This was driven both by the national fortunes of major powers as well as the collective impact of greater rebalancing and multipolarity. To that was added the complexity of a more inter-dependent, tech-centric and borderless world, where the concepts of power and influence have acquired a new meaning. And this mix now experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic whose devastation is beyond imagination. In this situation, the fate of our region cannot be left, certainly not in a democratic era to the decisions of a few. Those of us who have interests, capabilities and confidence must step forward. If the G-7 could become the G-20, then our region too can surely find a broad-based decision-making process. The Indo-Pacific is at the epicentre of this change. What is now critical is to ensure that our future is determined through a collective and participative exercise.

25. Decades ago, Sir John Crawford too would have looked at a world moving into unchartered waters. He helped determine the contours of the future then. That should serve as an inspiration and especially, to those who now have this responsibility.

New Delhi
September 06, 2021


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