“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 spoke to Narayan Lakshman about the range of cooperative initiatives on the anvil. Excerpts:
Regarding the announcement of Australia joining the Malabar naval exercises, 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 the like with the navies of India, Australia, the US 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.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in moving forward quickly on cyber and cyber enabled critical technologies?
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 will enhance bilateral cooperation. 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.
Could you talk a little bit more about special minerals and rare earth products? What exactly are 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, 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.
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 help India move forward?
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.
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.
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 are exploring how we can place temporary ground station tracking facilities in Australia to support that Gaganyaan Mission.
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?
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. 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. If the trials are successful, I remain confident about next year.”