‘To secure its future, Australia must look West as well as East. The profound changes in the region demand that we do so.'
Australia looks to the East, it looks to the North, but it has struggled to look West.
Of course West Australians know full well how broad the Nullabor really is, but as profound as any perceived distance between Canberra and Perth, is the nation's historic reluctance to embrace the Indian Ocean region.
This vast region is highly diverse in its peoples, cultures, religions, political systems and levels of economic development. Its 48 countries are home to more than 2.6 billion people, almost 40 per cent of the world's population.
The Indian Ocean region is undergoing a major transformation. We see extraordinary economic growth in South Asia, led by the rising great power that is India. India is on track to become the world's third largest economy after the United States and China, and the world's most populous nation.
We also know the global influence of the Gulf States, on whom the world relies for so much of its energy needs. The Gulf's rapid infrastructure development, open trade, capital flows and labour markets are making it an increasingly important centre for regional economic growth.
Africa's transformation is also significant. A continent of nearly a billion people, by 2040 Africa will have the world's largest working-age population. While considerable security and development challenges persist, Africa's modern reality is more complex than some of the stereotypes of the past would suggest. Foreign direct investment in Africa is now almost as large as the flow into China when measured relative to GDP and Africa now has more middle class households than India.
But knowing it on paper, knowing it in our heads, doesn't yet make it fixed in our policy settings.
Our allies are East across the Pacific; North we have the profound strategic and economic developments across East Asia; but we must also address the great challenges and opportunities that present themselves across the Indian Ocean region.
We can no longer afford to consider the Indian Ocean as an afterthought. It is a region that grapples with the full range of security challenges, including weapons of mass destruction proliferation; terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and across the Horn of Africa; piracy in the Gulf of Aden; as well as fisheries management, food security and the impact of climate change on low lying states.
Australia's interests in the region are significant.
More than a third of Australia's maritime zone lies within the Indian Ocean, including significant current and prospective energy and resource projects. Protecting these projects, as well as continuing to assert Australia's sovereignty over our wider maritime zone, is fundamental to the nation's long term economic interests. The Indian Ocean also represents a significant fisheries resource, and is home to what are arguably the world's most important sea lanes of communication.
It is clear that Australia's interests in the region require an increasingly activist Australian foreign policy.
Since it came to office, the Government has begun to pay the Indian Ocean region the attention it deserves.
We have done this by enhancing Australia's engagement with South Asia, countries in the Gulf, and across Africa. We have also nurtured relations with our South East Asian partners that are also Indian Ocean states. Our closest Indian Ocean neighbour is, of course, Indonesia. Australia's relations with Indonesia have never been better. We have a strategic partnership, and our cooperation regionally and globally is close and productive. Equally, our relations with Malaysia and Singapore continue to thrive.
Regional bodies, CHOGM 2011
Australia has also strengthened its role in Indian Ocean regional bodies such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). Over the next two years, Australia will work closely with India, as IOR-ARC Chair, to increase regional cooperation on fisheries management, customs training, energy security, and disaster management. In 2013 and 2014, Australia will itself chair IOR-ARC.
But we must do more.
To secure its future, Australia must look West as well as East. The profound changes in the region demand that we do so.
This is why the Government chose Perth, our gateway to the Indian Ocean and our Western capital, to hold next year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This will be the largest political summit ever to be hosted in Australia. It holds the potential to deliver important benefits for Australia, as well as for our engagement with this new, dynamic Indian Ocean region.
(Kevin Rudd is Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs.)