Keynote Address to the 7th Indian Ocean Conference

  • Speech, check against delivery

Thank you all for being here. I acknowledge the Whadjuk Noongar people as the Traditional Owners of the lands and waters on which we meet, and pay my respects to Elders, past and present.

Noongar people have managed and cared for the land, rivers and seas that connect Australia to the Indian Ocean for thousands of years.

And long before Europeans arrived here in the 1600s, Indigenous Australians were trading tools and exchanging culture with neighbours across seas – as far back as 4,000 years ago.

Australia today remains home to the oldest continuous culture on the planet, and is now also home to people from more than 300 ancestries.

A nation whose people share common ground with so many of the world’s peoples – including peoples from around this ocean we face from here in Perth, our Indian Ocean capital.

When we look west, Australians see the Indian Ocean. And we see its peoples in our own reflection.

In more than 30,000 Australians that hail from Mauritius, the 50,000 Australians from East Africa, our diverse communities from across South Asia and the nearly one million Australians of Indian ancestry.

And indeed, some Australians who made their journey from East Africa trace their heritage back to migration from India at the turn of the last century.

With all of you, Australia is a proud custodian of the oceans.  We share the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean – almost one half of the earth’s surface.

We take this responsibility seriously and we know you do too.

Not least, the island nations of the Indian Ocean – who are custodians of more water than land – small islands, with immense seas.

We are bound not just by shared geography but by the shared destiny of our interests.

How we prosper will be determined by how we work together to achieve those shared interests.

So I am grateful to all of you for being here for this conference: a head of state, 17 ministers, secretaries-general and around 400 delegates from 34 countries.

Let me particularly acknowledge His Excellency President Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka.  Mr President, you have a strong history with this conference. We are honoured by your first visit to Australia as President.

I am grateful to the India Foundation and the Perth US Asia Centre for their support in hosting today’s event.

And I am honoured to be hosting this conference with my friend, Dr Jaishankar. Jai, you are an axis around which so much of this important discussion revolves and I thank you for your leadership.

Can I also acknowledge my many Australian Parliamentary colleagues – some 11 in all – who are here with us tonight, including Matt Keogh, the Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans Affairs, Senate President Sue Lines, Assistant Minister Patrick Gorman, and my excellent Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts.

At the outset I want to acknowledge that we gather on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.

And the devastating conflict in the Middle East continues, with 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza starving, a million at risk of starvation, and 1.7 million people in Gaza internally displaced, while more than 130 hostages are still being held by Hamas.

The risk of regional escalation remains great.

The terrible toll of these conflicts underlines the importance of countries like ours working together to maintain peace in our region.

There is much talk of the Indo-Pacific, but give more emphasis to the second half of that compound term.

The fact is that the same unprecedented threats that are faced on the Pacific Ocean side of the region are also faced on the Indian Ocean side.

The prosperity, peace, and resilience we seek are being seriously challenged.

Food and energy are increasingly in short supply.

More people are displaced. More conflict risks and costs lives.

The continuing deterioration of the political, humanitarian and security situation in Myanmar not only affects its people profoundly, but also regional security.

Elsewhere, flare-ups and tensions over disputed areas heighten the risk of escalation to conflict.

Transnational crime and terrorism continue to challenge the security and economic prosperity of this region.

The pervasive challenge of irregular migration and people smuggling are felt deeply by many of you, and by us in Australia – as we discuss at the Bali Process, the forum we co-host with Indonesia.

The scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing threatens the Blue Economy, and the livelihoods and stability that rely upon it.

The multilateral system is falling short of the commitments we have all agreed to.

And of course, the climate is changing faster than our combined efforts to stop it.

Many of our communities have been overwhelmed by floods and fires.

In just the past year, 33 million people in Pakistan and seven million in Bangladesh have been displaced by floods.

Africa has faced protracted droughts and cyclones.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2021 warned that the Indian Ocean has warmed faster than any other waters since the 1950s.

These warmer temperatures, along with other climate impacts, are predicted to induce declines in fish catches across the ocean, hurting nations that have a high dependency on fisheries and lack options to adapt to climate shocks.

Ocean warming, acidification and coral bleaching are affecting the Maldives, and decreasing fish catches in Indonesia, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Bay of Bengal.

Just as the threat of warmer waters is felt in profound ways for low-lying Pacific atoll nations like Tuvalu, it is felt for Indian Ocean nations like Seychelles – which is only a few metres above sea level.

Mauritius has estimated that half the island’s beaches will be eroded in the next fifty years.

The recent oil spill there and the cargo ship fire in Sri Lanka are powerful reminders of the vulnerability of these island ecosystems.

Preserving our region demands slowing the destructive march of climate change.

I’m pleased to announce that Australia is launching a Marine and Coastal Resilience Hub under India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. 

The Hub will drive deeper engagement and advance scientific research among Indo-Pacific partners on marine ecology, the threats of climate change and marine pollution – issues that matter deeply to the sustainability of our shared Indian Ocean.

The IORA Blue Carbon Hub, led by our national science agency CSIRO here in Perth, is also building capacity and empowering IORA members to protect and restore blue carbon ecosystems throughout the Indian Ocean.

Economic, climate and food insecurity are exacerbating humanitarian crises and disasters in the region.

Australia will continue to provide disaster preparedness and development assistance for healthcare, economic recovery and humanitarian support to Indian Ocean countries.

Last financial year, Australia provided over $330 million in development assistance and over $100 million in humanitarian support to South Asia alone.

Yet we also face other, growing threats to our security and sovereignty.

Throughout history we have seen small countries, at vast distances from major powers, bear the brunt of a race for dominance.

The countries gathered here are no strangers to strategic competition – and you are also no strangers to its costs.

As expanding military powers take a greater interest in our region, we each need to sharpen our focus, on what our interests are, and how to work together to uphold them.

Building an Indian Ocean community, with habits of cooperation and of collaboration.

Embracing our diversity as a strength in our partnership. We need to forge our regional architecture and shape a regional identity.

My friend, Foreign Minister Marsudi of Indonesia, said at the EAS “we all have our differences, but it is up to us to use these differences as a dividing force or to turn them into strengths that enrich our collective efforts.”

Each of us has an interest in preserving the sovereign character of our own nations, and the open, inclusive and rules-based character of our region.

Our shared focus must be on what we need to do so we can make our own choices, according to our own laws and values, and pursue our own prosperity, respecting but not deferring to others.

Working in an open and transparent way that instils confidence in the choices that are offered – choices that are credible, genuine and enduring.

The most serious scenario we must confront is the risk of strategic competition escalating into conflict.

We face rising tensions across potential flashpoints in the region – from the Taiwan Strait to the Malacca Strait, with its critical connection to the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. Disputes persist about land and maritime borders.

The Indian Ocean already hosts more than a third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of global oil shipments.

Any slowdown or interruption, from piracy, disputes or disruptions, would have costly consequences around the world, as has been all too apparent recently in the Red Sea.

Countries of the Indo-Pacific face China’s rapid military build-up, without the transparency and reassurance that the region looks for from great powers.

But with an increasing level of commercial and military passage through the Indian Ocean comes a greater need for transparency and reassurance – to guard against the risks of miscalculation and accident we see in other vital international waterways.

The former Maldives’ Minister of State, Ahmed Khaleel, has observed that, “The Indian Ocean may become a key threat for strategic competition between major rival powers. But our hope is that the Indian Ocean will not witness a security dilemma in which activities by larger outside powers to enhance their own security interests create insecurity for others in the region.”

And our security in the region is challenged by actions that fall far short of conflict.

Throughout the Indo-Pacific, there is an urgent need to address disinformation, interference, opaque lending practices and coercive trade measures.

To manage such risks in a world where even research vessels have the potential to be tools for strategic goals.

In some cases, secrecy is privileged over transparency, and principles and practices of openness overlooked or abandoned.

Fragility and poor governance are stretching scarce government resources and leading to worse outcomes for vulnerable populations.

At the same time, international rules and norms are being reshaped, with some rights or goals abandoned in pursuit of others.

This all encroaches on the ability of countries to act in pursuit of their interests.

Without the freedom to act, within the bounds of agreed rules, we are constrained in our ability to maintain the balance of power we need for a prosperous and stable region.

Whether we are discussing the risk of these encroachments, or the risk of catastrophic conflict, our interests remain clear.

A region that is peaceful and predictable, that is governed by accepted rules and norms, where all of us can cooperate, trade and thrive.

Where a larger country does not determine the fate of a smaller country.

Where each country can pursue its own aspirations.

Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.

Rather than a closed, hierarchical region, we want a region characterised by openness and transparency. A region that prioritises:

  • the resilience and autonomy of regional countries;
  • the maintenance of regional peace and stability; and
  • adherence to international law and agreed rules and norms, where all countries’ sovereignty is respected.

This vision for our region is grounded in sovereignty.

Sovereignty, at a fundamental level, is about being able to make your own decisions, and shape your own future.

Sovereignty might be exercised alone but it is best assured when we are working together.

Because none of us can achieve a region with the attributes I am describing by ourselves.

We can only achieve this region if we all work together and all contribute to strategic balance.

Australia is determined to make our contribution to the strategic balance of our region.

We are investing in our own national power and applying all the tools of statecraft at our disposal.

We are working with partners to help increase resilience and resistance to coercion.

We are investing in our diplomacy, working to build coalitions, foster assurance, reduce tensions, avert crisis, prevent and help resolve disputes.

And we are investing in a capable military, defence industry and partnerships, including through AUKUS, to contribute in our role as a security partner for the region.

Deterrence and reassurance are both required to reduce the risk of conflict – by demonstrating the high costs should conflict occur alongside the advantages to all if it does not.

Transparency is at the centre of our approach – setting standards for ourselves and expecting those standards are emulated by others.

But without credible military capability, the efficacy of diplomacy is invariably diminished.

And without ever more active diplomacy, the risk of military capabilities being called into service is greater.

So Australia has opened new posts at Bengaluru, Kolkata and Malé.

We are strengthening our existing formal alliances with the United States and New Zealand, and growing other partnerships – partnerships that build confidence and create choices.

Australia is building our trilateral initiatives, with India and Indonesia, and India and France, to coordinate on our shared interests in the Indian Ocean.

We are deepening our economic and security partnerships with Japan and India, as well as the Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, France and the countries of Southeast Asia.

And we are leveraging those partnerships for positive impact in the region – the Quad’s response to regional priorities is a prime example, as is donor coordination in the Pacific, such as through the Partners for the Blue Pacific.

We are stabilising our relationship with China, without compromising on our interests or national security, recognising that we can’t manage our differences or take forward our interests without dialogue.

We are deepening our historical commitment to multilateralism. We demonstrate our respect for each other by upholding the same rules.

This is the approach Australia has taken in relation to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on provisional measures for Israel.

In a joint statement with New Zealand last week, we expressed our respect for the independence of the International Court of Justice and the critical role it plays in upholding international law and the rules-based order.

We underlined that decisions of the ICJ are binding on the parties to the case, and our shared expectation is that Israel act in accordance with the ICJ's ruling, including to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance.

Here in our region, we know the less we all operate by the same rules, the less unified we are, the more likely it is that vulnerabilities will be exploited.

Australia was proud to play a leading role, with many of you, in the negotiation of the High Seas Treaty and the Global Biodiversity Treaty.

It was our people, working side by side, that created stronger protections for our oceans and ensured the interests and contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities are recognised. 

We believe in the importance of regional institutions, including the architecture that binds the region from ocean to ocean – ASEAN, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

Our commitment to these bodies is not new. Australia was the first non-member to establish formal relations with ASEAN – ASEAN’s first dialogue partner.

And we are founding members of both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Association. 

Our collective efforts and resources have aimed to respond to the region’s needs and priorities. That is why Australia is, with our friends from India, hosting this conference today.

And this is why Australia works to maintain the conditions for peace through our diplomacy - while playing our part in transparent, collective deterrence of aggression.

Across our region, we see military power is expanding, but measures to constrain military conflict are not – and there are few concrete mechanisms for averting it.

We seek to change the calculus for any potential aggressor, so that no state concludes that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks.

Australia has a long record of promoting peace, in our region and beyond.

Including our work in 1971 as member of the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee, seeking to establish the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.  

And today we seek new measures for conflict prevention that reinforce the region’s existing economic and security architecture.

It is gratifying to be among so many other countries who share this goal, and who bring so much history and experience of peacebuilding and conflict resolution to the table.

The Bay of Bengal Arbitrations delimitating maritime boundaries were one example where states peacefully resolved overlapping, long-standing and sensitive claims under UNCLOS.

We have learned so much from the African Union’s leadership, and the powerful contribution of African countries to peacebuilding throughout history.

All around the world, we must lessen the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and prevent catastrophic conflict.

All of us have a role in deploying our collective statecraft, our influence, our networks and our capabilities towards this goal.

This is the challenge that peacebuilding must meet today.

Our partnership with India, the largest economy of this region, is central to our efforts to build a peaceful, safe and prosperous Indian Ocean.

The example India sets as a regional leader is essential to our efforts to uphold sovereignty and the rules.

India and Australia, as partners and friends, are working to provide practical options in the region to help boost sovereign capability in the maritime domain.

We’re hosting Law of the Sea workshops to build capacity in the Indian Ocean region on UNCLOS, maritime domain awareness and maritime law enforcement.

We will initiate a Maritime Leadership Program, which will help to build the skills, leadership and confidence of the region’s senior operational leaders.

And Australia will launch a Civil Maritime Security Postgraduate program, bringing together emerging policy leaders to deepen their expertise international maritime law and security.

And Australia looks forward to working closely with India to co-lead IORA’s Maritime Safety and Security working group over the next two years.

Building capacity and sovereignty in the maritime domain is central to the development of the blue economy, from which so much of the region’s prosperity stems.

Our trade and tourism links are also key enablers of economic resilience. We are invested in your success, just as you are invested in ours.

Australia is partnering with the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation to initiate a bankable pipeline of projects to improve connectivity in South Asia.

This includes regional energy integration across Bhutan, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. We’re also partnering with Sri Lanka on management of its air assets and design work for two ports in Bangladesh.

All our efforts aim to help countries build their own resilience and sovereignty.

To ensure countries can protect our great oceans. To ensure countries aren’t held back by unsustainable debt.

Australia will always pursue a world where differences and disputes are settled through institutions, agreed rules and norms, and not by force or coercion.

We will always remain a principled Indian Ocean power and a reliable Indian Ocean partner.

Because this region is our region, and together, we get to determine its character.

And we get to decide its future.

Thank you.

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