In conversation with H.E Barry O’ Farrell
"India Australia relationship now extends beyond what some used to describe as the three C's, Cricket, Curry and Commonwealth" - H.E. Barry O’ Farrell
Ytharth’s Co-Editors Torunika Roy and Aditya Kumar Singh interviewed His Excellency Barry O’ Farrell, the High Commissioner of Australia to India, on 23 May 2022, Time: 2:30 pm on various aspects of India-Australia ties.
Aditya: When we look at the history of our relations, we, for sure, can say that the current warmth, enthusiasm, and optimism were missing. How would you describe the current trajectory of our relations?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: I think by any measure the relationship is at an all-time high. That's as a result of a number of factors. But, more importantly, I think what's happened over the last few years, COVID has delivered some lessons around economic and geostrategic policy that have drawn us together in the Indo-Pacific. As a result, we've have achieved new forums for engagement that cover the vast array of issues some of which have been traditionally part of the relationship such as education, resources, etc. Now our relationship is covering areas like renewable energy, critical minerals for manufacturing inputs, and cooperating increasingly more on common policy challenges that democracies face in today's world. The good or bad news is that whilst we might be at a high point, both your ministers Dr S. Jaishankar, in particular, and our government, continue to set even higher ambitions for relationships, so bilateral relationships, even multilateral relationships don't have a finite finish point. They continue hopefully, to grow.
Aditya: Australia is an ally of the US, part of five eyes, and recently signed the AUKUS agreement. Whereas India is America's Global Strategic Partner. How do you see the role of the US in shaping our relationship?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: Quad is not a military construct. It's a foreign affairs forum. But for Australia, and I suppose, for countries in Asia, the US presence in the region has always been an important part of each country's assessment and approach to geostrategic challenges, as they have arisen. AUKUS is at its heart. Australia is trying to ensure that its defence capability matches increasing assessments of our region. A region that is increasingly important in the world in terms of the amount of trade that passes through it, but equally a region that has seen strategic tensions increase. So, AUKUS is designed to improve Australia's national defence capability. And that's good news for the region and for those countries like India, who share a view of the Indo-Pacific post COVID. If we're able to contribute more, as India and other countries do, it's got to be good for the region.
Aditya: Let's talk about another area of common interest, China. Currently, both of us have difficult relations with China. China's rise has posed many challenges to the world and we certainly are not oblivious to it. Since the beginning of this century, we generally had a convergence on China. But China has completed reoriented herself, practising Wolf Warrior diplomacy, instead of following International Laws and norms. How does Australia view China's rise and what are the points of convergence Australia shares with India?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: Well, first and foremost, of course, Australia doesn't have a land border with any country. We recognize that with India, with tensions on the land border and other issues within the region, the actions of other parties can create enormous tensions and stress in the region. When the Quad met in Melbourne, in February, in the midst of the evolving Ukraine Russia situation, part of their strong message was that regardless of what was happening in Europe, we shouldn't take our eyes off the potential for tensions and other issues in the Indo-Pacific. And that proved to be wise, given what's recently happened in relation to China, and the Solomon Islands. So, the fact is that, importantly, China has been a long-term trading partner for both of us. But it's equally true to say that we've had a difficult time (Australia) with China in recent times, particularly in relation to what might be called economic coercion through trade levers. But that said, we would like to pursue as we do without other trading countries, who buy from us, an open relationship. We are determined. So, we have the view that people only buy products from a country because they need those products. We don't put strings on them. But we are open to ongoing dialogue, notwithstanding the difficulties that exist within the China relationship. Our approach, in relation to China, was pretty clear and consistent and revolves around four principles. Firstly, a commitment to open markets with trade relationships based on rules. Secondly, protecting sovereignty, strengthening democratic institutions and processes and building resilience to coercion. Thirdly, respect international law, and peaceful resolution of disputes. Lastly, supporting a strong and resilient regional infrastructure. And the good news is that the vision for the Indo-Pacific is caught up in those four principles. It is a vision that India shares, for a free, secure, resilient Indo-Pacific free of coercion, regardless of how big or how small the nation is.
Aditya: We are part of many groupings such as Quad, EAS, and ARF in Asia. What kind of cooperation do we have in such forums to maintain the balance of power in Asia and thus prevent it from becoming a unipolar Asia?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: Whether it's the ASEAN, whether it's other forums in the region, the fact is that all of them are committed to international rules and norms. The laws of diplomacy and the laws of government ensure that if there's a dispute, it's addressed in an appropriate way. Both of our countries have ASEAN centrality at the centre of our foreign policy. For instance, there's a quad meeting going to happen tomorrow, in Japan. All of us will engage to brief them on what was decided, and to explain the purpose of the resolution on a particular issue. So, the fact is that India brings less baggage to many of those forums than a country like Australia that until 20 or 30 years ago, hadn't decided whether it was part of Asia or was still part of a European nation. Happily, that debate is over. India has great influence within the Asian region. But we work together on these issues, and it's all about our respect for sovereignty. It's about respect for international law. And it's about ensuring that countries can have practical sovereignty, and not coerced.
Torunika: On April 02, 2022, India and Australia signed a landmark bilateral trade pact called the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA). What are the key areas where Australia aims to foster its trading ties with India? Do you think this could also add a soft-power element to the India-Australia partnership? Our countries do share a mutual love for cricket. Apart from this, in what other areas can both the countries engage through soft-power diplomacy?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: Well, I'm old enough to remember when Australia also shared a good relationship with India on the hockey fields. India first came to my mind as a leading hockey country. Now, of course, it's a leading cricket country. In both of them, we have competed amicably if not fiercely, on playing fields and so happily, the India Australia relationship now extends beyond what some used to describe as the three C's, Cricket, Curry and Commonwealth. I prefer the four Ds, which are Democracy, Defence, Diaspora and Dosti. So, the economic agreement is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are as many economic lessons out of COVID as there are health and geostrategic lessons.
And, of course, you can't implement either the health or geostrategic lessons unless you have a strong economy. India is certainly trying to build a strong economy as is Australia's building back better post COVID. So, the benefit Australia has and one of the logical pieces as to why we're halfway through reaching a closer economic cooperation agreement is the fact that we have complementary economies. Australia has elements that can assist India to grow and build its economic structures. Critical minerals, for instance, which are important for the electric vehicle industry. India has the largest two- and three-wheel electric vehicle industry in the world. India has an ambition to move into automobile. Also, battery storage, which is a critical part of our approach to energy in the future. So, in those sorts of areas, we are able to work together, not as competitors. And the upside is that as a result of the first tranche of the trade agreement, 96% of Indian goods coming to Australia will come in duty free. That's good news for people producing things in India, whether the spices, whether the pomegranates and the textiles or jewellery. Of course, in return, Australia will also have products come to India, with no duties. Some of those will be elements, again, to India's economic mission. For instance, it's no surprise that India imports a lot of what is called metallic coal, which is not used for power generation, but is used to create steel that currently comes into the country taxed. That tax means that the cost of the steel that has been used, whether in households or in construction sites or for railways, or roads, is higher.
The fact that it will no longer be taxed is a win-win for everybody. So, in democracies, of which we both are, trade deals have to be based on benefits that governments can sell to their electorates. And that's what I think has been demonstrated in the first tranche of the trade agreement. And what I hope will be demonstrated in the second tranche. The fact is that we extend beyond goods and services, we're also looking at investment in both directions. So, for instance, India and Indians are investing in critical minerals and rare earth mines in Australia to help those growing industries. Equally, Australian superannuation funds and others are investing in some of the infrastructure and other companies that have been developed here. Australia has also provided market access for qualified professional traditional chefs and yoga instructors, and young workers in the hospitality industry, and of course, that's on top of what India does for the world in relation to people working in the IT sector. Australia is largely a services economy. Those services depend on technology. And so many of the people who are providing and maintaining technology are either Indian citizens who have moved to Australia or Indian citizens. So, this is good news all around. It's building both of our economies, which equip us with the agency to deliver that secure, resilient, sovereign Indo-Pacific that we both want, as well as providing opportunities for our citizens and maintaining living standards for our citizens.
Torunika: After the victory of the Australian Labour Party at the elections, there were some thoughts regarding the trajectory of relations among Indian scholars and diplomats. Thanks to His Excellency’s tweet, we got to know that Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is no stranger to India, and that he has also travelled India as a backpacker in 1991. Also, in the Quad, PM Modi will be one of the first few leaders to meet the new Prime Minister of Australia. So, what role does the personal relationship between the leaders of two sides have in strengthening the relations? How can this new leadership impact the trajectory of India-Australia relations in future?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: Well, I think in bilateral and probably multilateral relationships, and official relationships, personal relationships are important. And of course, political relationships are important. I don't think we would have got the first part of the trade deal if the two Prime Ministers hadn't exhibited a political will to deliver a trade deal. That's obvious. There is no doubt that the relationship between our former Prime Minister and your Prime Minister was close and strong. I have no doubt that the relationship between your Prime Minister and our new Prime Minister will be equally strong. Both will meet together on the side-lines of the Quad in Japan. Our foreign ministers and your External Affairs Minister will meet likewise. Minister Jaishankar has tweeted today, both thanking the former foreign minister and welcoming the person he knows well, Penny Wong as our new Foreign Minister. So, I have no doubt that what has been a characteristic of India's foreign policy since Mr. Modi became Prime Minister will continue the pace. We all remember the Modi hug from the first day that he became Prime Minister. I'm not sure it's completely back, thanks to COVID. But I have no doubt that he will forge a strong relationship with the Australian Prime Minister, and Dr. Jaishankar seems to do that naturally with most people he meets. The good news is, of course it helps when you meet a national leader, and you have some familiarity with the nation. That's why I tweeted that Anthony Albanese travelled India in 1991, by train, to see the country. He makes the point that the best way to engage Indians is to do so on a train. Because as we know, train travel takes a while. That means you can have deep conversations and it is a terrific way. When he was in Delhi in 2017, on the parliamentary delegation, his other colleagues went to Agra. He had been to Agra when he was here earlier. So, he decided to go to Akshardham by Metro. I'm told by him, and he said this publicly that the High Commission at the time was nervous about him going off on his own. But he did. And again, he caught the train, he went out to Akshardham and had a look at that magnificent Hindu temple that he still talks about. So, he's no stranger to India, and I think that will help strengthen his early contacts with Prime Minister Modi, with Dr. Jaishankar and other ministers. Madeleine King, who's a lower house member from Western Australia, said something very sensible during the campaign. She said “labor will build on what our predecessors have done. We will build things up, not tear them down.” So that's another sign that despite the joy of democracy, which means you can win or you can lose, it doesn't mean that existing relationships have to be changed. And I'm confident this one won't be changed.
Aditya: You just mentioned defence. The Make in India initiative by PM Modi is one of his pet projects, and Make in India in the defence sector has been one of his biggest pushes. How can Australia contribute to Make in India particularly in the defence sector?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: I think there are two issues to that answer. One is there is a small, advanced manufacturing industry in the defence sector in Australia. It is largely technology related, although we do make some other equipment. But it's very small. There are more nine-year-olds in India than the whole population in Australia. And of course, there are many more people in India than the nine-year-olds. We are 152nd of the size of India population wise, which means that we're not going to be much of a market for defence equipment either. But my view is, the more India grows and builds a complex and diverse defence industry, Australia still wins. Because it means that it increases the number of vendors in the world. And of course, as we know, if there's more than one person wanting to sell something, you get a much better price. So, the interesting thing if I can just add, I think there was some early concern that Make in India or Atmanirbhar Bharat was a sort of a form of protectionism. It's clearly a response to the lessons we all learn from COVID. When suddenly what had gone on for years without us noticing became apparent that, without being disrespectful to India, when India discovered that (notwithstanding had been the pharmacy of the world) many of its active pharmaceutical ingredients APIs came from another country, Australia had similar lessons. So, I think what the government of India has done very sensibly, is sought to adjust its economic settings, not to pull the barriers up. It wants to trade with the world, it is trading with the world, the world wants to trade with it. But to ensure whatever the next challenge that the government here or hopefully not globally face, they learn the lessons from the last one.
Aditya: We are on different pages on certain matters, especially if we look at the Ukrainian crisis. And if we look at how to deal with China, we are not exactly on the same page. So, what are the challenges according to you, in the future?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: Whether best friends or close partners, I would say as a married person in a relationship, it's rare that you always agree on every issue. Although I have to say that in the presence of my wife, I would always say that I agree with her on everything. But we know that at times, we have different views. We actually support different football teams. So, we have differences like that. There will be and there may be challenges. But if you focus on the things that unite us, if you focus on the things that we have in common, it’s interesting how some of those other issues become less important. So, if I can move away from the government to government for a moment, one of the things Australian businesses has to learn is more business literacy about doing business in India, and the Australian Government and many companies are putting a lot of effort into familiarising themselves with the way in which companies should approach India. As we deal with government to government, we're both learning more about dealing with each other's officials, the bureaucracy, because we've both got legacies left to us by the British. And at times, they work brilliantly and other times, they can be sometimes slow on both sides of the Indian Ocean. So those sorts of challenges will be there. But on issues like Ukraine, as Boris
Johnson said when he came here, the world understands India's historic relationship with Russia, that hasn't got in the way of the Quad successful meeting in Melbourne in February. I don't believe it'll get in the way of tomorrow's Quad meeting in Japan because we are mature partners. No one expects us to agree on every issue. Otherwise, we'd call off the next cricket test series. So, while there can be differences in any bilateral relationship, I think, to date, and hopefully into the future, the India-Australia relationship will have very few of those. But we will have lots of areas where not only do we agree, but we're progressing to deliver our shared vision. What Prime Minister Modi said was a sacred vision of that free, open and secure Indo-Pacific.
Torunika: You have been in India for two years now. Can you tell us about your experience? Have you toured the country? What do you like the most about India? What is your message for International Relations students in India? Also, how do you see India at 75, as this year we are celebrating our 75th Independence anniversary?
H.E. Barry O’ Farrell: So as much as I have enjoyed Delhi, I like nothing better than getting out of Delhi to see the rest of the country. I came 26-27 months ago, hoping that by the time of the end of my three years, I would have visited every state. I haven't yet achieved that. I've gone to about 18 or 19. I spent the week before last down in Hampi. I went to Hyderabad. I spent Easter at Kaziranga. I love your cities. Over the weekend later I was in Mumbai, which of course I could go to every weekend if I was able to. So, I love seeing the real India and a bit like Canberra in Australia, a nation's capital is not the whole country. And the more I can travel to do the job of representing Australia, the happier I feel, notwithstanding the fact that COVID has been a constant companion of mine, since I arrived a month before lock down. So, I haven't been anywhere that I haven't enjoyed. I think you could probably spend a lifetime in Rajasthan and still not have seen it all. But I think that's true of so many states and I love the diversity that exists both from north to south, in the population. I think that diversity in India is such a strength for the country. Food as you can tell I like it all there's nothing I don't like. And of course, no Australian of my age would come to India and not be familiar with Indian food because there is an Indian restaurant in every suburb in Australia. And thirdly, I said this to some young friends of mine in Australia recently, I think students should be optimistic about the future, notwithstanding these challenges. As I joke, I was born last century. I've seen lots of things in my lifetime, including the Cold War and all those things. The world has got through them. The countries have got through them. The trajectories of most countries in the world have been incredibly positive and every parent wants better for their children. Most countries have achieved that over the last 25-50 years. There's no reason why that can't happen. So, I think a bit like Dr. Jaishankar, when he talks to us, more ambition is good. People should try to reach the stars. But I also think I probably do not need to say this to an Indian audience, given your track record. I told both my sons, find things you like doing, and find a way to make it provide a living for you. In other words, do something that interests you. Because there are lots of people who don't have that option. And lots of people who regrettably do jobs each day that they don't like, but have to because of circumstances. The other thing is, if people can make a difference in the jobs they do, it's even better. And you can do that, as I've discovered, not by me, but watching my colleagues. Diplomacy can make make a difference. The magnificent effort India put into getting students out of Ukraine at that time, the efforts that we all put into getting people out of Afghanistan demonstrates the worth of diplomats for all countries, in addition to those other difficult things I deal with on a daily basis.
The great thing about India at 75, and I was reading an article from 1968 about when the constituent assembly was established in 1946, Australia was the only British colony, not Canada, not the others, who sent a letter congratulating the new assembly on meeting for the first time. I think the great thing about India is that it has emerged on the world stage. It's been around for 75 years. It had some incredible leaders. But PM Modi in the last few years has taken the countries to more visible heights and ably guarded by his External Affairs Minister. India is far more influential in the world today than it has been. I often describe it as the natural leader of the Indo-Pacific region. It clearly has less baggage; it has a history of engaging people. It has specialised under successive governments in building influence and what we see now is a government using influence to, not just benefit this country but to benefit likeminded world. I think India’s trajectory economically and internationally is very positive. We all carry the scars of our history as we progress. But the great thing about living in a democracy is that there is nothing bad in a country that is democratic, which democracy cannot fix. And that's the nature of democracy. We saw in Australia that the government can change without revolution, without bloodshed, without uprising, and do so peacefully. You probably haven’t seen the concession speech & victory speech of the two leaders. They were respectful. The crowds were respectful. There was goodwill expressed between the two leaders and that's because ultimately whoever leads the country wants the country to succeed and that's what India is benefiting from the world.
Disclaimer : The interview was conducted for the inaugural issue of our magazine based on India-Australia ties.
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Our bi-monthly e-magazine is a recent work we have undertaken. While India has many academic journals in the field of International and Strategic Affairs, there lacks a vibrant magazine culture in our country. We intend to fill this gap with our magazine. Our magazine will take up one issue every two months and invite scholars from across the world to present their views. We also aim to prominently feature the faculty, research scholars, and students of the School of International Studies but are not restricted to them. We intend to be the voice of Indian scholars working in the field of foreign policy, defence and strategic studies.