Press conference with External Affairs Minister of India

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia and India’s relationship; Indo-Pacific; the Quad; Ukraine; AUKUS; Australia’s nuclear submarines; AUKUS.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Hello. Thanks very much for joining us. As you know, the External Affairs Minister of India, my friend Dr Jaishankar, and I have just met and had an excellent discussion. As always, he has great insights about the region and the world and we had a wide‑ranging discussion on our many areas of mutual interest and cooperation. I'll invite Dr Jaishankar to offer his reflections in a moment before we open questions.

I want to make a few comments at the outset if I may. The first is obviously Australia and India are comprehensive strategic partners. We are Quad partners. We partner in many other ways and most fundamentally we share a region – the Indo‑Pacific region – and between our countries we span a great breadth of the Indo‑Pacific with our own areas of deep connection and expertise. We've got a shared interest and we share an ambition and that is our region being stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty, where countries are not required to choose sides but make their own sovereign choices. We don't want to see any one country dominating or any country being dominated. We both recognise our region is being reshaped economically and strategically, and I think our partnership is a demonstration that we understand that this period of change is best navigated together.

I make this point from the Australian Government's perspective: we can only build and sustain the region we want by working with others, including by working in partnership with India, and for Australia, this partnership is a critical part of shaping the region we want. We agree that we have to continue to deepen our relationship, and I'm pleased to flag with you that Dr Jaishankar and I have agreed that we will keep working to expand our relationship, including our diplomatic footprint in each other's countries. We're looking forward to opening a Consul General for Australia in Bengaluru, in the heart of India's technology industry, sometime next year and we look forward to Dr Jaishankar being able to finalise an additional presence here in Australia.

So, with those opening words, I would throw to my friend Jai, who I think we've met, I think, nearly seven times or something like that since the change of government, so it was really great to meet with you today and over to you.

India's External Affairs Minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: Thank you very much. Let me begin by first of all thanking you really for a very nice welcome because when I came into Canberra yesterday, I saw the Old Parliament building lit up in our national colours and there is nothing that can be more touching than a gesture like that. And it wasn't a one‑off, because as we celebrated our seventy‑fifth anniversary of independence, in fact, we saw that in Australia across the country at different iconic sites you celebrated along with us, and I was particularly struck by the image of the Sydney Opera House in our tricolour, so I think it was a good gesture which spoke of a very warm sentiment, and I appreciate that.

So as Minister Wong said, we've had really a very, very useful, very productive, very comfortable discussion today, and part of it is really the fact that we've been meeting quite often. I mean, I think I met you literally on your first day on the job.

Foreign Minister: That's right.

Dr Jaishankar: In Tokyo for the Quad. But since then, it's been Bali, G20, it's been the Phnom Penh, East Asia Foreign Ministers' Meeting. We saw each other in New York both bilaterally and for trilateral meetings as well. So, we've had this now practice of continuing conversations and good exchanges as we really work to strengthen our bilateral relations and see how we can shape a better region.

So today's meeting was what we call the Foreign Ministers' Framework Dialogue. It's I think the thirteenth of that series. And, you know, we spoke about a whole lot of issues – trade and economy; education; defence and security; clean energy; and among the many agreements and understandings we reached, but really the fact that we would, it's in our mutual interest to expand our diplomatic footprint in each other's countries. So, we would certainly welcome Australia doing so in India and look forward to doing the same in Australia at some point in time.

There were some issues I think which we see a great potential in terms of giving a greater, I would say, quality to our bilateral partnership. One of them is a proposal that's been under discussion for an understanding on mobility – on mobility of talent and skills; how we can grow education; and what we could do particularly bearing in mind India's new National Education Policy. We certainly would like to see Australia, which is one of our major partners in education, also having a stronger presence in India. And that's something which our Prime Ministers had discussed as well when they had met in Tokyo.

We are very encouraged to see that the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement that was finalised earlier this year is moving towards its ratification and entry into force. That's a very good development. We also note that steps are being taken to amend the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement, because that was also a bit of a challenge to growing our business.

But in addition to - and then we really looked at areas like critical minerals, cyber, new and renewable energy, and looked at, in a sense, integrating a lot of what our colleagues have been doing over the last few months. And when we did that it was, I think, very revealing that in fact, since June this year, six of my cabinet colleagues have actually visited Australia. Among them the Minister for Coal and Mines; for Renewable Energy; for Education; for our Water Resources, our Home Minister. And we've also seen that the Australian Deputy PM and Defence Minister as well as the Deputy Premier of Western Australia and the Premier of New South Wales have been to India with business delegations. So, overall, the sense has really been that the relationship has kept growing. We are, you know, looking at finding ways of sort of taking it to higher levels.

When it comes to the global situation, we had a good discussion. We haven't completed it. I think there is still some bits we going to be doing at lunch. But we did discuss the Ukraine conflict and its repercussions in the Indo‑Pacific, of what the progress in Quad; G20 issues; our trilaterals; the UN; some things in the IAEA; climate; finance; sustainable development goals. So, you can see, it's been a pretty sort of broad‑ranging discussions.

And I think the underpinning of that really is that as liberal democracies we both believe in a rules‑based international order; in freedom of navigation in international waters; in promoting connectivity, growth and security for all; and, as Minister Wong said, in ensuring that countries make sovereign choices on matters that are important to them.

Over lunch, I expect that we will be taking up a few other issues. I would like to share with her our perspectives on the Indian subcontinent, particularly I would like to discuss some issues on terrorism, on countering terrorism. I look forward to hearing on this region from her. And I think I would just conclude by saying that we will be taking over the chairmanship of the G20 at the end of this year and as a member of G20, I think for us, Australia's views and interests are very important. I hope to cover that more intensively in the coming months.

And let me let me finally say once again really thank you for having me over for the hospitality, for the warmth of your reception.

Foreign Minister: Okay, we have a limited number of questions.

Journalist: Ministers Daniel Hurst from ‘The Guardian'. Dr Jaishankar, you mentioned Ukraine. There'll be a UN General Assembly debate this week about a motion not recognising the Russian annexation of territories in Ukraine and also calling for de‑escalation. Is the Government of India in a position to support that resolution of the UN or are you inclined to abstain? And, Minister Wong, are you encouraging India to take a particular position on this vote?

Dr Jaishankar: Well, you know, as a matter of prudence and policy, we don't predict our votes in advance. Having said that, you also know that we have been very clearly against the conflict in Ukraine. We believe that this conflict does not serve the interests of anybody, neither the participants nor indeed of the international community. And as a country of the Global South, we have been seeing first-hand how much it has impacted low-income countries, the challenges that they are facing in terms of fuel and food and fertilisers. So, you know, my Prime Minister said a few weeks ago at Samarkand that this is not an era of war. And you know a conflict today in some corner of the world can have a very profound impact on everybody across the world and I think that continues to guide our thinking.

Foreign Minister: I'll reiterate again Australia's condemnation of Russia's illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, and reiterate the view that we've expressed publicly that the annexation, so‑called sham annexations, or sham referenda and the annexations are illegal, and we remain of the view that Russia's invasion is illegal. In relation to India, I would indicate again that we welcomed Prime Minister Modi raising his concerns with Mr Putin in September, I think it was, and as Prime Minister Modi has told Mr Putin, this is not the time for war.

Journalist: Dr Jaishankar, how – is India, I should say, is India rethinking its relationship with Russia given what is going on in Ukraine and how are you viewing the performance of Russian weapon systems over there and does that give you cause to think that India should reduce its reliance on those weapon systems? And if I could ask Senator Wong –

Foreign Minister: This is where you get around limited questions. You ask like multifaceted dot points.

Journalist: Well, Senator Wong is this relationship with Russia holding back the Quad in any way, considering the Quad is talking about the rules‑based order in the Indo‑Pacific? Is there some inconsistency in relation to Russia?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think the Quad is functioning extremely well. I think that the level of strategic trust and strategic consistency amongst Quad partners is deep and firm. And as I said, you know, I note Prime Minister Modi's public comments and we've welcomed them.

Dr Jaishankar: On the Quad, the Quad is a mechanism which is primarily focused on the Indo‑Pacific, and I think that's an area where the convergence of interests between the Quad partners is particularly strong. With regard to India and Russia, we have really a longstanding relationship with Russia, a relationship that has certainly served our interest well. And when you asked about the military equipment issue - we have as you know a substantial inventory of Soviet and Russian origin weapons, and that inventory actually grew for a variety of reasons – you know, the merits of the weapon systems themselves, but also because for multiple decades, western countries did not supply weapons to India and in fact saw a military dictatorship next to us as the preferred partner.

So, I think we all in international politics deal with what we have. We make judgements which are reflective of both our future interest as well as our current situation, and my sense is in terms of this current conflict, like every military conflict, there are learnings from it, and I am sure my very professional colleagues in the military would be studying it very carefully.

Journalist: How is India's defence dependence on Russia affecting Australia's relationship with New Delhi and have you raised it with your counterpart today?

Foreign Minister: I think that question's just been covered to be honest with you.

Journalist: Pawan Luthra, ‘Indian Link Media Group' from Sydney. Minister Jaishankar, there seems to be a diplomatic war brewing between Canada and India. On 23rd September, India issued a travel warning for its citizens, warning them about travelling to Canada citing a sharp increase in incidents of hate crime, sectarian violence and anti‑India activities in Canada. Canada, in turn, has issued similar warnings of travelling to India for safety reasons. The Indian travel warning seemed to follow Khalistan referendum voting in Brampton on 18th September.

Dr Jaishankar: Could we come to the question?

Journalist: The question is, how concerned are you about these kind of activities spreading internationally as the commentary grows, especially in Australia?

Dr Jaishankar: Now, look, I want to be very clear here, when we issued travel advisories, we issue travel advisories as a travel measure, for the security and safety of our citizens. So, I would urge you not to read something into a travel advisory which is beyond the advisory. What some other country does presumably reflects their thinking and their policies.

As to the the Khalistani issue that you have raised, you know from time to time we have engaged the Canadian government. I have myself engaged my counterpart on this issue and we have flagged the need to ensure that freedoms in a democratic society are not misused by forces which actually advocate violence and bigotry. So, it's important I think for countries to understand today really how democracies should function not only at home, but also the responsibilities the democracies have to other democracies abroad.

Foreign Minister: One last question. But before I throw to David Crowe, I'm just going to make this point about the – just from Australia's perspective – relevant to the question you asked that the Indian diaspora is a valued and important contributor to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society.

Journalist: Thank you, Minister. A question on Naval matters that are closer to home – AUKUS and also the operations of the Chinese Navy. There has been some comment recently from China about naval operations in the Indian Ocean. I wonder whether there are any concerns in India about that, and related to this, Australia obviously has the AUKUS plan for nuclear‑powered submarines. Does India see that as being in any way a problem at the IAEA or is it something that India sees as helping for the stability of the region, and I'd be interested, Senator Wong, in your comments on this also in terms of what position you would seek from India on AUKUS?

Dr Jaishankar: Well, on your first question about the Indian Ocean and the naval presence of countries in the Indian Ocean, I think it's important to appreciate that a naval presence that strengthens, you know, safety and security, and contributes to prosperity and progress in a region, by definition, is an asset to the strategic scenario of that region.

Now, where we are concerned, when I look at my own Navy, other than securing our national security, we have over some years now developed a reputation, rightly, of being a first responder. We have been available when natural disasters strike, when COVID problems happened, when different countries got into difficulties of various kinds. So, I think a lot of it is really - what is the intent, what is the messaging, what are the behavioural characteristics, how transparent you have been? I think these are all factors when any country assesses the presence of any other country's naval forces.

On the AUKUS, look, the issue did come up for debate at the General Conference, and I think the IAEA Director General, who is a very, very seasoned and very well‑respected professional in that particular domain, is someone I know myself having worked in that field for many years as very well, I think he gave a very objective assessment of what the issue was all about, and I think we respected that and we urged other members to do so as well.

Foreign Minister: On AUKUS, very briefly, as you know, Australia is seeking to replace a necessary capability. Australia has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. We remain compliant with the NPT. We have an impeccable record when it comes to compliance with the NPT, and we are working through and will work through with the IAEA to ensure that that record stands with full transparency, and that was what we indicated very clearly to the Conference.

Thank you very much.

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