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Strategic Partnership will aid smooth work in the event of regional crisis: Australia High Commissioner

Barry O’Farell.   | Photo Credit: Dinesh Krishnan

Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell took charge a month before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in India, yet his time here has seen a steady uptick in the momentum of bilateral cooperation including a Prime Ministerial summit in June and, more recently, Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar naval exercises. He speaks to Narayan Lakshman about a range of cooperative initiatives on the anvil.

Regarding the big announcement of Australia joining the Malabar naval exercises, effectively making it a Quad event: could you explain how this takes forward the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) that Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison agreed in June 2020, in terms of maritime security and broader stability across the region?

It will demonstrate the ability of our navy to work through exercises, warfare serials and like with the navies of India, Australia, the U.S. and Japan. That is important because, were there to be a regional crisis, like a natural or humanitarian disaster, the ability to work smoothly with partners is critical. It builds particularly on the maritime agreement that was one of the agreements underneath the CSP, but also to the mutual logistic support arrangement, which is designed to improve the collaboration between our armed forces. This reflects the commitment that Quad partners have to a free, open, and prosperous Indo Pacific. It demonstrates the commitment that Australia and India have to what Prime Minister Modi described at the June summit as a sacred duty to provide the neighbourhood with the environment where people could prosper, where there could be stability upon which to build your lives, and where you could live freely. It reiterates that.

It also comes off the back of ongoing interactions between our armed forces. To some extent, Malabar was a fixation that we are delighted to be part of, but it was a fixation because it ignored the fact that the AusIndex exercise last year was the largest naval engagement Australia had ever been a part of, and most complex involving submarine serials and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrols across the Bay of Bengal. Equally, the recent passage exercise again demonstrated our ability to work together, including practising warfare serials on water. All these things increase the level of cooperation, increase the significance of the relationship, but practically ensure that should they be called upon, our navies could work more closely together, effectively, in support of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo Pacific.

Also read: India-Australia friendship based on trust, respect: Scott Morrison

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the Indian and Australian economies among others, yet, in doing so, has made it imperative to close ranks around technology cooperation, to preserve their vision for a democratic, regionally balanced Asia. What do you see as the biggest challenges in moving forward quickly on cyber and cyber enabled critical technologies in this regard?

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged economies. It has accelerated geostrategic competition, and it has obviously disrupted our way of life. It has highlighted the importance, to countries like India and Australia, of ensuring a safe, secure and prosperous future for our citizens. That’s why, as part of the CSP, there were agreements in relation to critical technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and 5G because we recognise the opportunities they present to people, to businesses, to the broader economy, and the fact that they should be guarded by international standards to ensure they do not present risks, to security or prosperity. The Australia-India framework Arrangements on Cyber and Cyber Enabled Critical Technology cooperation, abbreviated as the Arrangement, will enhance bilateral cooperation. Under the agreement, we are going to cooperate together to promote and preserve that open, free, safe and secure Internet by working around those international norms and rules that we talk about. It sets out practical ways to promote and enhance digital trade, harness critical technologies, and address cyber security challenges. It provides a programme of ₹66 crore over four years for an Australia-India cyber and critical technology partnership to support research by institutions in both Australia and between institutions in Australia and India. We also signed an MoU on critical minerals between both countries because they are the essential inputs into these critical and emerging technologies, which cover areas like high tech electronics, telecommunications, clean energy, transport and defence. Critical minerals are essential if India wants to achieve its energy mission goal in the battery industry, storage industry and electric vehicle industry.

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Could you talk a little bit more about that, specifically, special minerals and rare earth products? What exactly are the spaces and any specifics on where Australia can help move things forward?

If you want to build batteries or electric vehicles, lithium, amongst other items, is required. We know that your northern neighbour is your most significant supplier of these critical minerals. We know that India is seeking to become more self-reliant. We know that imports from China are reducing. Australia potentially sees an opportunity for us to provide elements into India’s efforts to improve its manufacturing, defence and electric vehicle and energy mission projects. We have Indian companies who are currently owning or significant investors in Australian critical minerals and rare earths companies. We have just released a new prospectus on critical minerals and rare earths which lists over 200 projects capable of attracting more investment into India.

I know there’s concern in some parts of the community that self-reliance means protectionism. Well, we believe, firstly, that that is not the case, and that there will always be markets in India for elements that can be used by India to grow economies, grow businesses and provide more jobs and more wealth into society. But secondly, if you were concerned about the protectionist angle, the fact is that there is nothing stopping you coming to Australia to buy a mine to put those resources, those elements, into your own businesses, in the same way as is happening with coalfield in Queensland.

Also read: Malabar 2020: the coming together of the Quad in the seas

You did mention quantum cooperation. Given the investments made by India under its national quantum mission, and the aspiration here to build more infrastructure and experimental facilities, how could Australia, which is ahead in this field, help India move forward?

Firstly, Australia is already contributing to India’s national quantum mission by facilitating partnerships with universities, research institutions and businesses. That includes one of the best relationships we have with India, which is the Australian India Strategic Research Fund, which has been going for over 20 years. Since 2013, one of our Australians of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons, has led a team of researchers at New South Wales University’s (UNSW) Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, seeking to build the first quantum computer in silicon.

For quantum computers to be successful with their calculations, they have to be 100% accurate, but electrical interference called charge noise gets in the way. To tackle this problem, the UNSW has used a Research Fund from that Australia India Strategic Research Fund to collaborate with the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, to combine Australia’s state of the art fabrication facilities, and India’s ultra-sensitive noise measurement apparatus. This has helped identify how and where the fabrication process should be adjusted. Earlier this year, the UNSW team was able to achieve a 99.99% accuracy in their atomic level silicon prototype. They believe it is only a matter of time before they’re able to demonstrate 100% reliability, and produce a 10 qubit prototype quantum integrated processor, hopefully by 2023. This has the potential to revolutionise virtually every industry, solving problems and processing information that would take a conventional computer millions of years to calculate in seconds. This is practical cooperation between the UNSW and the Institute in Bangalore, going on right now ready to hopefully come to practical fruition in 2023. Equally, in the upcoming Bengaluru Tech Summit we will host an exclusive session providing an overview of our innovative ecosystem, our cyber and critical technology capabilities, growing space ambitions, and the applications of computing, and quantum computing. Professor Simmons will be one of the keynote speakers. We recommend tuning into 11 a.m. on Friday November 20 for the session “From Cyberspace to Outer Space: Innovating with Australia in a Post-COVID World”. The bottom line is that India and Australia, through two respected institutions, are close to cracking something nowhere else in the world has been cracked, and it is likely to be ready within the next three years.

Looking at space technologies, India has made critical advances over several decades now. What synergies and opportunities exist between India’s long-standing programme and Australia’s relatively new space ambitions.

Firstly, we have a space sector going back to back to 1967. We launched our first rocket in South Australia and Woomera in 1967. But we were also critical to NASA throughout, regarding the use of space as part of NASA’s global space infrastructure. We received those pictures from the first moon landing and broadcast them to the world. The U.S.’s two systems failed and ours didn’t fail on camera, and that’s why we had pictures of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. We have facilitated communication with deep space probes and also the landing craft on Mars.

Australia and India have been cooperating together as countries since 1987, when we inked our first MoU, and there is a strong engagement between ISRO and Australian agencies. We have undertaken data collaboration on Indian remote satellites. Since 2013, we have been doing laser ranging for Indian regional navigational satellite systems. We launched an Australian satellite by an Australian company and of course, we look forward to your manned space mission in 2022. We are exploring how we can place temporary ground station tracking facilities in Australia to support that Gaganyaan Mission. That is something that is practically under way as we speak. But we have been impressed by India’s capabilities and ambitions in space. You have the record for the most number of satellites released by a single rocket ever. It was more than 100 in 2017.

A final question on a subject that probably matters to a lot of youngsters here: you mentioned the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on education. Are Australian universities following the online model? How do you see them recovering? When will things open up and what options will Indian students have?

A lot of the universities are using the online option. As someone who’s been coming to India for 10 years, initially I did notice a resistance to online education. Like the other technologies that we’re finally using during COVID, that resistance has been broken down. I confirmed that with the Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT Madras. But we recognise that it is face-to-face learning, like face-to-face working, is still what most people want. A number of Australian States are starting pilot programmes to demonstrate that students can be picked up and returned to Australia into campuses safely given the COVID spread. And my Education Minister Dan Tehan made the point two weeks ago that the Australian government is keen for that to happen as soon as possible. The latest part to be announced was one from South Australia that will fly students out of Singapore into Australia. There was an early one announced by the Northern Territory. On the back of those, there is a hope that we will be able to return students to Australia for Day One, Term One, next year. But it will depend on those State trials. It is a bit like our approach to opening up bubbles with other countries: we would like to see things being done in situ, in practice, in real time to show that it can succeed. If the trials are successful, I remain confident about next year.

The challenge at the present time is that both countries have international flight bans. The only flights operating between both countries are repatriation flights. Malaysia and Singapore, which were the two countries in pre-COVID times where passengers could transit to get to Australia or to come to India, are not accepting Indian citizens. But that in no way undermines Australia’s desire to resume whatever is going to be business as usual, in relation to tertiary education.

Australian State governments and our education institutions themselves have put a lot of effort into looking after those Indian students who were stranded in Australia due to the COVID-19 crisis. Some of them are people that have had to wait a month or two until the Vande Bharat planes started. Having graduated mid-year, they have now hopefully most of them flying home, while others are still continuing their studies. Whilst, like many places at the start of COVID-19, there were a few teething problems, I’m delighted to say a combination of State and federal governments and the universities and the Indian community there have been supportive of Indian students in Australia.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 10:17:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/strategic-partnership-will-strengthen-ability-to-work-smoothly-were-there-to-be-a-regional-crisis-australia-high-commissioner/article33005541.ece

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