As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop was the lead player in the development of the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper. Released in 2017, it sets out a course for Australia to navigate a world in which the international order is being reshaped and power balances altered with the rise of China. It regards the Indo-Pacific as critical to Australia’s interests and a deepening partnership with India as vital in securing peace and prosperity in the region. Ms. Bishop, who is also the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and tipped by many commentators as a future Prime Minister, fields questions on Australia’s place in what it sees as an increasingly “complex and contested” region. Excerpts:
Does the main challenge to Australia’s strategic and economic future lie in what one of your international security scholars described as the “end of the Vasco da Gama era”, that is, the end of Western ascendancy in Asia?
Well, I think our primary foreign policy objective is to achieve an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific, in which the rights of all states are respected. This Indo-Pacific embraces India and the nations of the Asia Pacific. Not just as geographic description, but [one that reflects] the strategic and economic dynamics of our broader region and its changing balance of power and influence. So, our foreign policy debate is where Australia is positioned and where our interests lie — that’s how I describe the current scenario.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, this strategic grouping of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, has been resurrected. But what progress exactly has been made since the last meeting some months ago and do we know when the next one is going to be held?
I understand that our officials are scheduling a second Quad meeting soon. But the Quad is one of many subgroupings in the Indo-Pacific. Australia already has a trilateral strategic dialogue with the U.S. and Japan, while the U.S., Japan and India have their established meeting. I think the Quad is a natural extension of these mini-lateral relationships. It’s just one of the many ways in which Australia will seek to engage with partners that help shape our region at a time of geostrategic and technological and economic change. So, like many other groupings in the region, if the Quad is established at a higher level, it will allow our four nations to discuss all matters of common interest, as we do in other regional groupings. It’s obviously something to which Australia is committed, and I believe it’s a bipartisan approach towards the Quadrilateral.
What has changed since Australia pulled out of the Quad a few years ago? It was the Labour government that pulled out because of apprehensions over how this might play out with Australia’s economic relationship with China. But doesn’t the same apply today?
Well, it certainly wasn’t a decision of my side of politics to pull out of the Quad. We were exceedingly disappointed when the Labour government made a decision to withdraw from the Quad. We think that India’s importance is not to be understated; it’s a significant strategic partner for Australia and I think we share converging interests, particularly in the Indian Ocean. And India is the world’s largest democracy and will soon be the world’s most populous nation and so its economy is integrating, with technology and global know-how. It’s becoming increasingly integrated with the economies of East Asia and North Asia.
We see our relationship with India growing, based on the key pillars of security cooperation, economic engagement and, obviously, people-to-people links. I think the security and defence relationship has expanded greatly in the past few years. We’ve now got joint exercises across all three services and we’ve most certainly got a shared interest in maritime security, upholding international law, regional stability and countering violent extremism.
Is India as invested in the Quad as Australia is? I ask this in the context of the annual Malabar naval exercises. Are you a little disappointed that you are not a part of it this year?
Well, Malabar is a bilateral exercise between India and the U.S., and Japan was invited. Australia wasn’t invited to join. We are interested in joining Exercise Malabar but we are giving priority to the deepening of our bilateral exercises for now. As Indian Ocean nations with democratic values and an interest in regional security, I think Australia and India are natural defence partners. We conducted the second iteration of the bilateral navy exercise AUSINDEX in June 2017, so we’ll continue down that path.
Do you have the sense that your participation in Malabar will resume a little later, or do you have a sense that India’s hesitation has to do with China?
That’s something obviously you’ll have to ask India about. I know that AUSINDEX is a tangible demonstration of strengthening defence cooperation between Australia and India and that was envisaged in the framework for security cooperation that the Australian and Indian Prime Ministers announced in 2014. And Australia and India also maintain a regular programme of dialogue and reciprocal ship visits and the like. Obviously, we remain interested in participating in the exercise and we just haven’t received an invitation from India to take part. So that’s really a matter for India.
Is there any truth in the view that a full-fledged Quad arrangement will be seen as a kind of security threat in Beijing, an attempt to contain its rise? Is that a factor that the government has considered? Has it done anything to allay Chinese…
We’re committed to our engagement with Asia. We’re committed to ASEAN’s centrality to regional architecture. We have a very strong relationship and comprehensive strategic partnership with China. But all countries in the region have different groupings. They are members of different groups reflecting shared interests, common values, strategic issues and the like. China is a member of a number of groupings to which Australia is not a part and I think the Quad is just a natural extension of the two trilaterals that are currently in existence – Australia, Japan and the U.S., and India, Japan and the U.S. We are robust democracies, we do share a common world view and we are increasingly close and strategic partners.
How do you respond to the view that there has been a weakening in the U.S.’s resolve in staying engaged with Asia, particularly South East Asia? And that this has only got worse with the advent of Donald Trump?
The U.S. has been the dominant power in our region throughout post-Second World War history. And today, the relative strategic weight of China and other regional powers, including India, is growing. Like all significant powers, China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests. As will India, and as other nations will do. It will be a complex and contested region. The U.S. has indicated a keenness to remain deeply engaged in the region. The national security statement of recent times speaks about the Indo-Pacific as an area of significant priority for U.S. foreign policy.
Shifting to the India Economic Strategy, we learn that it’s already been drafted. What is the next step? Does it get discussed in government, and when does it get unveiled formally? Can you give us a sense of this?
Sure. I have met with the author, Peter Varghese. Our economic interests are focussed on ensuring India as a priority economic partner. India is already our seventh largest trading partner in terms of two-way trade. Two-way trade and investment are growing but I think we should aspire for much more. I have high ambitions for our India Economic Strategy. It’s about identifying practical measures, deepening trade and investment ties, building on similarities between our economies and providing a roadmap to cement Australia as a priority economic partner for India out to 2035. What I anticipate is that we’ll launch the strategy later this year.
You’ll note that last week we announced we will be opening a consulate general in Kolkata. That will be our fourth post in India alongside New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai and it is a recognition of India’s importance to Australia as a key economic partner. The consulate general in Kolkata in particular will be helping Australian businesses work with India to grow your mining sector.
But what is the process now? Does the India Economic Strategy document get accepted as it is? Does it go to Cabinet?
It was commissioned by the Prime Minister, so presumably the Prime Minister will then determine how broadly he will debate it and discuss it. It could be with the National Security Committee, a subcommittee of Cabinet, it could be with the broader Cabinet. But I would think the Prime Minister would be looking for input from many government ministers.
Moving to education, Australia has emerged as something of a big magnet for foreign students, many of them from India. But a vast majority of Indian students who arrive here have at least one eye on getting employed here after they finish their course. At one level, this is a reflection of the employment opportunities that Australia has to offer. But it also suggests that the education system here would do well to attract more students only for the academic programme.
Well, India is a large source of skilled migrants and the second largest source of international students — I think something like 68,000. So, we clearly welcome Indian students to study in Australia. But we also welcome skilled migrants. So, I think it’s a question of ensuring that we both get the balance right. That there are opportunities in Australia, we certainly want to see skilled migrants here, but we also see our international education sector as a significant part of the Australian economy. I think we’re managing to balance these competing interests. In the education sector, actually our flagship New Colombo Plan is supporting more Australian students to study abroad, so there is much more two-way exchange than there has been in the past. This year we are expecting about 1,500 Australian undergraduates to study in India. And our universities support other fellowships at the postgraduate level, Australia Awards scholarships are available for Indian students…
So how much money has been earmarked for this scholarship scheme? How does Australia hope to benefit from this?
The New Colombo Plan is about providing opportunities for Australian undergraduates to undertake part of their study in a country in our region. Forty locations have partnered with us on the New Colombo Plan and so Australian students have this opportunity to live, study and undertake internships. It will give them an unparalleled opportunity to understand the region in which we live, become more aware of the culture, political, economic, social side of the countries in the Indo-Pacific. And most certainly it will enable them to create networks and connections that hopefully will last a lifetime.
It’s been a couple of years since the India-Australia nuclear agreement was inked and we still don’t have a commercial contract on the table. Do you have any idea if there are any holdups on this account?
I understand that commercial negotiations for the supply of uranium to India are ongoing between Australia uranium exporters and Indian uranium customers. I know the first shipment of a sample for testing purposes took place in July 2017. We put in place the framework for Australian uranium producers to engage with Indian uranium customers. The timelines, details and negotiations for future bulk exports of Australian uranium to India are commercial matters. But most certainly the Australian government remains prepared to support commercial shipment to India.
Australia was really quick to make a statement on the U.S. pull out from the Iran deal. Is that significant that you came out against an ally so quickly and in such a clear and forthright manner?
No. It’s consistent with what we’ve been saying ever since the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] was finalised. Australia has recognised that it’s by no means a perfect agreement but in the absence of a viable alternative, we supported the JCPOA. I have never been accused of being quick, off the mark on commenting on foreign matters before [laughs], but it’s just consistent with the approach we have taken. I had spoken to the U.S. National Security Adviser and the U.S. Secretary of State. They were well aware of the position that we would take. So, having informed our U.S. partner privately, we responded to requests for public comment.
French President Emmanuel Macron talked about a Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis, as a regional structure. Is it something that this Australian government has ever put its mind to as a possibility?
President Macron most certainly spoke of the complementarities, if I could put it that way, between France, India and Australia, in our part of the world. France, of course, has interests in both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Australia and India have complementary interests in the Indian Ocean.
We have considered these levels of cooperation through the Indian Ocean Rim Association, where Australia and India are members and France is a dialogue partner. So France’s involvement in the Indian Ocean is not new but perhaps it is the first time we have heard a French President articulate the idea of a three-way partnership between Australia, India and France in relation to the Indian Ocean.