Diaspora bedrock of Australia’s engagement in South Asia: Tim Watts

MELBOURNE, 13 July 2023: The government considers the Diaspora as bedrock of Australia’s engagement in South Asia, said Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was delivering the keynote address today at the South Asia Conference 2023 – Trade & Security, organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) at the Investment Centre Victoria, CBD. The Minister highlighted Australia’s diplomacy with South Asia and the Indian Ocean region as a whole. While the growing ties with India receives attention, Australia is firmly geared towards  the whole region that is growing in economic and strategic salience and will only continue to grow in importance in the years ahead, the Minister said.

Tim Watts detailed Australia’s growing relations and steps taken to enhance them with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. “We believe economic stability and security are fundamentally linked. Strong, stable economies are less vulnerable to coercion and better able to make independent decisions,” he emphasised.

Tim noted  India is not only our bilateral partner but also our Quad partner, and like us, is committed to an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific where sovereignty is respected. “This Government strongly believes that South Asia and the Indian Ocean region are integral to our interests and our future. If there is one through-line to everything I’ve said today, it is that Australia is an engaged partner in the region.

“This is partly why Australia is looking forward to hosting the next Indian Ocean Conference in 2024, for the first time,” he disclosed.

The conference divided into panels on India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, delved into the specifics of the countries. Lisa Singh, CEO Australia India Institute, who moderated the India Panel, talked of ‘unprecedented closeness’ of India and  Australia, it’s ‘multi-alignment’ policies in the context of its relationship with Russia and it not criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the longterm approach driven by power generation, Sino-Indian dispute and relations with Pakistan. Others in the India Panel were Tully Smith, Australia India Chamber of Commerce (AICC) and Norm Duce, REA and Michelle Wade, Commissioner South Asia, Global Victoria joined online fro Bengaluru , India.

Norm Duce, REA, talked about REA operations in India and how the Indian and Australia markets were so different. REA India runs the famous REA India’s housing.com. Norm disclosed their India operations were looked after by 1,800 people and had 2.5 million entries at housing.com. This was encouraging, but the Indian market was evolving, he said. The compony looked after all related issues in India’s property market, Norm told SAT.

Michelle Wade said, within the negotiation of the next free trade agreement, a chapter on digital trade is likely. Adding that e-commerce has been incredible in India over the last five years due to payment platforms allowing ease.

The Panel on Sri Lanka saw presentation by Dr. Chulanee Attanayake, former National University of Singapore and now Swinburne University, who said  Sri Lanka’s strategic importance lies in its location as an island nation in the middle of the fastest sea lanes of communication in the region, making it a potential partner for defence and joint military cooperation, but also a concern for competing powers China and India.

She explained how US assistance to Sri Lanka since 1947 has been just $ 2 billion, indicating how it has been out of tune with it. Dr. Chulanee also pinpointed the importance of the Colombo Port for India.

Mr. Murtaza Jafferjee, CEO JB Securities talking online from Sri Lanka explained in detail the facts and reasons behind the flawed policies that led to worst ever political and economic collapse in the country. He touched the allocation of resources, interest rate suppression, fall, of the currency, 50 % discount on fuel subsidies and so on. “Subsidies should go to the people who need them and not the rich as was happening,” he told SAT answering to  a question on the economic crisis.

Prakash Mirchandani, AIIA Victoria & Dr. Chulanee Attanayake, Swinburne University at the Sri Lanka Panel. Photo- SAT/NN.


In the Bangladesh Panel, one issue that emerged was the challenge of the diversification of the country’s economy. It was felt , the country’s exports are heavily reliant on the garments industry, which poses a risk due to specialisation. The growing concern and desire to diversify exports, and a partnership with countries like Australia, it was felt, could be beneficial in providing resources, know-how, and specialised services in this effort. Bangladesh has a growing middle class with money to spend, making it a large and growing consumer market for Australian products, was emphasised.

In his closing remarks by Prof. Michael Wesley, University of Melbourne, said an Australian Minister had told him, ” This is our moment of making the most of our relations with India.” But the political volatility of South Asia and the factionalisation in South Asia will make it harder for Australia to engage with India and other countries in the region. But the Modi era will not outlast Modi, he said.

South Asia’s nationalism is complex to deal with for Australia and added to this is the ‘very divided Diaspora,’ he said. Additionally, South Asia’s geopolitical importance and cultural and political dynamism make it crucial for Australia to partner with the governments of South Asian countries in addressing ecological challenges and the importance of the Indian Ocean region. Plus, it is important for Australians to improve their knowledge on South Asia as it is becoming more complex and dynamic socially and politically, and even those who have some understanding of Indian society and politics like the speaker consider themselves as dilettantes, he summed up.

The conference attended by South Asian analysts, academics, business people and stake holders was able to highlight the rising importance of South Asia for Australia in the volatile multi-polar world and the emerging dynamics in the Indo Pacific. The fact, Australia has woken up to these challenges is a truism.

By Neeraj Nanda

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