Can’t believe China wants to be an unreliable partner

Barry O’Farrell, Australian high commissioner to India


Improving ties with Australia has been one of the key foreign policy priorities for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Within months of taking charge in 2014, he travelled to Australia, which was the first prime ministerial visit in 28 years. Six years later, Modi is holding a virtual summit with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on June 4. Morrison’s visit to India was delayed because of the Australian bushfire crisis and subsequently by Covid-19. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Australian High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell says India and Australia have reached a historical high in bilateral relationship. “The virtual summit is a chance to reflect on that,” he says. 

Q/India and Australia have come closer militarily. How do you see this space evolve, especially after the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement is in place?

A /The India-Australia defence relationship is overlooked sometimes. In the past few years, we have seen the number of defence engagements quadrupling. We have AUSINDEX, which is Australia’s largest and most complex [defence exercise] with India. I think it is going in the right direction.

Q/Faced with the threat of Covid-19, how do you assess the potential of economic ties between the two countries? Is the door to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) still open?

A /The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of resilient supply chains. The Indian government is looking to encourage more common investment, with many companies seeking to diversify their production bases to make sure they are not crippled by being caught in one country in the midst of a crisis. There are natural commonalities between India and Australia. There is potential in education, energy resources, biotech, advanced manufacturing, health, water and agricultural services. The door remains open for India to join the RCEP. But that decision is to be made by India.

Q/Australia has demanded an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.

A /The call for an independent review came from the conviction of the global community to know how we got Covid-19 and as an attempt to improve international institutional response to future pandemics. We welcomed the resolution of the World Health Assembly, committing to an impartial, independent and comprehensive review, supported by 138 member states, including India. Australia shares an economic and strategic partnership with China. But our decisions are guided by common sense and national interest. I am not unmindful of the issues that India is facing on its borders in the north. But those are for India to resolve.

Q/Your views on an increasingly assertive China?

A /I find it hard to believe that China wants to be seen as a less than reliable trading partner. Many countries including Australia and India have engaged in trade with China for a long time. We have seen actions that have been characterised in particular ways. But in the long-term, it makes no sense for any country to get the reputation of being unreliable.

Q/Australia has been quite passionate about the India-US-Japan-Australia Quad.

A /The Quad is developing as a good forum for like-minded democracies to coordinate approaches towards important issues such as maritime security, cybersecurity and counterterrorism. Those issues are real today. We share a commitment and responsibility for maintaining a secure and stable Indo-Pacific region.

Q/The dates for the Indian cricket team’s Australian tour have been announced.

A /Cricket is the shared passion of both countries. The series will lift spirits as we keep fighting this terrible virus. It can assist in repairing mental health and morale in both countries.