Interview with Sonia Singh, NDTV India

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: 2+2 Dialogue; Quad Summit; India-Australia education ties.

Sonia Singh, Host: Hello and welcome to the NDTV Dialogue, a conversation of ideas. The big idea this week is the India‑Australia 2+2 Dialogue. Joining me is Penny Wong, Foreign Minister of Australia. Thank you for being on the Dialogue Ms Wong.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Singh: And congratulations on that amazing World Cup win. Are you still celebrating?

Foreign Minister: Thank you. Yes, we are, I think we're still a little surprised, but we're very, very happy to see the result. Commiserations to India, it's an amazing team you have. But I was saying before, Travis Head is from my hometown, so I'm pretty happy about that. He did really well.

Singh: I know, it was really fantastic and I think, really it's kind of fitting we've had a India‑Australia final –

Foreign Minister: I know.

Singh: We've got a 2+2 Dialogue happening –

Foreign Minister: I know.

Singh: So it's a great time for India-Australia ties.

Foreign Minister: We didn't script that, that just happened, right.

Singh: When did you hear – I believe you were on a plane when you were getting the scores?

Foreign Minister: Well, yes, we were, we were on a plane, and it was, I think, 3-47 or something, and I thought, oh, well, we're not going to win" and then the next update was, looks like we're going to win. So it was pretty exciting.

Singh: So cricket throws up as many surprises as diplomacy. Now, we've got a big 2+2 Dialogue, and then probably a Quad Summit in January. What's the main focus of the agenda of this dialogue?

Foreign Minister: Well, the 2+2 Defence and Foreign Ministers Engagement, I think demonstrates, you know, how consequential this relationship is between India and Australia for both of us.

We're partners in a region that is changing, we share democratic traditions which we value, democratic institutions which we value, and interests about the sort of region we want it to be, and you know, that's peaceful, stable and prosperous, a region where sovereignty is respected, and so we're working together to ensure that occurs.

Singh: And of course, the Quad is often described as an anti‑China alliance, now we just had your Prime Minister in China in November, and you just had the recent scrap over an Australian diver and the China warships aggression in a sense. How do you see the whole Australia‑China relationship building as opposed to India-Australia in the Quad which is seen often as antithetical to say what China would want in this region?

Foreign Minister: Well, firstly, on China, we have said we want to continue to engage, we know there are areas we can cooperate on, we also know there are areas we can disagree on, and will disagree on, and we will always assert Australia's interests and our sovereign interests. And the example you raise in relation to the incident involving Australian divers and the actions of the Chinese vessel, we've raised very public concerns about this behaviour.

But more broadly, what I'd say about the Quad and India is, I think that those are a group of countries who are looking to what is happening in our region, looking to deliver value to the countries of the region. They're countries which do have a shared view about the importance of the international system and the international rule of law, trading arrangements, which are transparent and fair and it's a good thing that we work together, and it's a very important partnership that we are resourcing in the discussions here, today and tomorrow.

Singh: The word expansion is to actually work against other countries, expansionist, say aggression or maybe what about expansionist agenda is often used by India. Is that a word you would agree with when it comes to looking at what China's interests or actions are in this region?

Foreign Minister: Look, we probably focus on the importance of the observance of international law. So every country has their own way of talking about stability. Australia is a middle power, we rely greatly on the international system. So what we look at the South China Sea, or trading arrangements, what we see is the importance of countries like India and Australia asserting that rules which have been agreed, norms which have been agreed, are observed.

Singh: One of the big focus of interest perhaps for the Quad Summit, is that finally will the Prime Minister be coming for the Quad Summit?

Foreign Minister: Well, as I previously said, you know, we were sworn in, and on the day we were sworn in we got on the plane to go to Tokyo to go to a Quad Summit, so you can probably see from that, we regard it as a very important forum.

Singh: So one of the big focuses is going to be economic cooperation, and the India-Australian Economic Cooperation Agenda, with the Free Trade Agreement, and that's one big area where perhaps India and Australia can work together especially given China actions against trade in Australia. How do you think that's going to actually work out? Are they hopeful that will be signed and why do you think it will be a win-win for both countries?

Foreign Minister: Well, we've got a bit of work to do, I think first. We already have an agreement between our two countries, which provides a lot of tariff‑free engagement, tariff‑free trade and having a more comprehensive and ambitious agreement, it's going to take work from both sides, and it's going to take both sides being able to deal with some of the sensitive issues in their own economy.

So we'll keep working at it, and I hope from an Australian perspective, what I would say to India is there is benefit to you in this sort of agreement with Australia and we hope that we'll make further progress.

Singh: What are the areas you think that there are common ground on which there can be real progress on, or which are perhaps the low-hanging fruit?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think that a lot of that has already been taken, which is why having the current agreement which covers around I think 85 per cent of our trading areas in which we can trade and engage is a good thing, and it's also why you know, we have to lift level of ambition if we want to go beyond it.

Singh: We saw in fact when Prime Minister Modi was in Australia as well, really the red carpet welcome, the whole enthusiastic reception he got from the community there, the Prime Minister there with him as well. How does this play out in the context of Australian politics, domestically as well besides, of course the international benefits of both countries getting closer, but how does this play out in domestic politics, and why do you think both Prime Ministers have actually managed to forge such a close relationship?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think they like each other so that's always a good start, isn't it, they got on well, and you know, that is a good thing for both countries to have the leaders have a trusting personal relationship.

Look, people‑to‑people is an important part of our bilateral relationship. It's not the only part. You know, we're cooperating in many ways. But people‑to‑people matters, you know, the Indian community is our second‑largest diaspora, it's our fastest‑growing diaspora, and you saw from the images of Prime Minister Modi coming to Australia and the speech in the stadium that he gave, you know, Indian-Australians were very happen to turn out and welcome him to our country.

We're proud of our multiculturalism. One in two Australians are born overseas or have a parent born overseas. This is part of who we are, and we work very hard to celebrate that, but also celebrate not just our diversity, but also what we share, which is values of acceptance and inclusion and respect for the rule of law.

Singh: So when you make that point about the rule of law, so the India-Canada relationship is going through extremely tough times right now and Australia is part of the Five Eyes alliance, has said of course that you support the rule of law. But India feels very strongly that Canada's interpretation is not something which we accept at all. What is Australia's role in this and what do you see on this from your perspective?

Foreign Minister: Look first, as an overarching proposition, I think India and Canada have been good friends, and we hope that these matters can be resolved. I have already said in terms of some of these issues raised that Australia's view is we want other countries to respect our sovereignty, and we respect their sovereignty. We also believe in the rule of law, and we've expressed our view to our Indian friends consistent with those principles.

Singh: As a member of the Five Eyes alliance has Australia seen any evidence of this Canadian claim?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm not going to get into these matters or intelligence matters. There's a lot of matters on the public record, and there are processes in place. I will leave that for the appropriate authorities. What I would say though is we have a principled view about the importance of sovereignty and the rule of law, and that will always inform Australia's position.

Singh: Is this likely to come up in the 2+2 Dialogue?

Foreign Minister: I think ‑ well, we have a lot of other things to discuss, so our focus will be on people‑to‑people, deepening cooperation, defence cooperation, diplomatic cooperation, so there are a lot of things we'll be talking about I'm sure.

Singh: One of, of course, the other big conflicts the world is facing right now is what's going on after the Hamas attack in Israel and what's currently happening in Gaza, and a feeling that many countries in the Global South especially and China as well hosting the Arab-Islamic Summit making the point that the world is not doing enough to stop what's going on in Gaza. What is Australia's stand on that, is it time for ceasefire?

Foreign Minister: What I've said about ceasefire is this, I've said, we called for humanitarian pauses and corridors, to protect civilians, but we know that those are a first step. We all want to see the next steps towards a ceasefire. But it can't be one‑sided. And we know that Hamas is still holding hostages and it's still attacking Israel.

More broadly we have affirmed, in affirming Israel's right to defend itself, we have also affirmed the importance of observing international law, including the protection of civilians. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic, and deeply distressing, and the loss of civilian life has been something all countries are mourning.

Singh: Just moving on Minister, one of the other important areas of cooperation between India and Australia is of course education, and we just had two Australian universities, say they will announce campuses in Gujarat. How do you see that really building up, because earlier there were issues of visas, and in 2008 some questions of attacks on students. How do you really see that changing and what do you think the future is for ties between India and Australia in education?

Foreign Minister: Well, I hope we can keep building our relationship across a range of domains, and one of them is education, and I know I was in Parliament during that period, and what I have always – what I always hope, and what we always try to ensure is a country in which people are respected and people are safe, and in which diversity is celebrated. So we would always ‑ we always take such an approach.

But, you know, education is ‑ I think there's such a great long‑lived investment and long‑lived relationship which comes from education, don't you think? My father was a Colombo Plan Scholar to Australia from Malaysia, right, and so for his generation, what that meant for their relationship with Australia for decades to come meant so much, so I do see such benefit in educational cooperation, and hopefully it means that there are many more Indians who know more about Australia and vice versa.

Singh: So will we see more visas opening up perhaps or agreements ready on making it easier for Indian students to come to Australia to study?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think you will see a focus on education. Currently we are looking at a whole range of issues associated with international education. We are very clear about the importance of focusing where we want our international education to be a priority, and obviously India is a priority.

Singh: Well, finally Foreign Minister Wong, it's been great that you've actually been to India quite a lot in the last two years and suddenly ‑

Foreign Minister: Yeah, it's great.

Singh: The relationship has really taken off, and something you said during the G20, interested me where you talked about really the deep civilisation aspect and the history that -

Foreign Minister: The Raisina Dialogue.

Singh: - yeah, that India brings to its foreign relationships and diplomacy. How do you ‑ what did you actually mean by that?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think foreign policy is an articulation of who you are, which is your history and your values, and also your interests, how you see the world, and obviously India brings its long history, I described it as a civilisational power there, to how to engages with the world.

For the same reason, it's also why in our role, in my role now, we are working to bring the experience of our First Nations people, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to how we engage with the world, because ultimately foreign policy does involve who you are, and that informs a great deal how you see the world and how you engage with the world.

Singh: Foreign Minister Wong, thank you so much for being here, thank you for speaking to NDTV and congratulations on that win again, but next time I hope India gets the better in the World Cup Finals.

Foreign Minister: Fair enough.

Singh: But congratulations and thank you.

Foreign Minister: Thanks for having me.

Singh: Thank you.

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