Australia draws a line between peaceful protests and violence and vandalism, says Penny Wo...

Australia draws a line between peaceful protests and violence and vandalism, says Penny Wong 

In Delhi for 2+2 and framework dialogue, Australian FM Penny Wong says bilateral relationship is “consequential”

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong are in Delhi for bilateral talks and the 2+2 dialogue, just a day after the India-Australia Cricket World Cup Final. Speaking to The Hindu, Australian FM Ms. Wong said that India and Australia have a “consequential relationship”, and are able to engage on sensitive issues like the Khalistan separatist protests, and the India-Canada issue.

 Congratulations on the World Cup Win…do you regret you weren’t there in person?

 I have to say this was a little unexpected. I think we were prepping ourselves for India who has been so dominant in the tournament, to win, but as a South Australian I’m really happy because Travis Head is from my hometown. I couldn’t get here for the match. But the Deputy Prime Minister attended and he said it was extraordinary. 

 You are here for the 2+2 dialogue and the framework dialogue. But there’s still some uncertainty though over the upcoming Quad Summit, that will be held in India. Can you confirm the Prime Minister Albanese would be here in January for the Quad Summit?

 When our government was sworn in, in May 2022, we got straight onto a plane to come to a Quad meeting [in Tokyo]. So I think that gives you some sense of the priority we put on that engagement. This is a very consequential relationship for us whether it’s the bilateral relationship or working together on the Quad. We are working together to ensure peace, stability and prosperity. In the past year, the Prime Ministers have met several times and we have seen 19 ministerial visits to India, so I think that gives you some sense of the priority we place on the relationship.

 Where do you see the Quad’s focus going next- could it become more strategic and is there room for expansion as we have seen with the BRICS, for example? 

 I think that the Quad is a very important grouping of countries that share democratic traditions, share interests, and want to ensure that the Indo Pacific, the region that we share, remains a region in which sovereignty is respected and in which countries can thrive, where trade can thrive. There are some very practical elements. So we’ve worked on pre-positioning humanitarian supplies we work on maritime domain awareness. It’s a grouping that, you know, 20 years ago may not have worked together as much, but in today’s world is working together very closely. I know India is very strategic and has a clear view of what it will want to achieve from next year’s Quad summit. 

 For some weeks we’ve seen massive protests in Australia over the situation in Gaza, that criticise the Australian government’s position. You have condemned the October 7 attacks on Israel, but are not calling for a ceasefire as 15,000 people, a third of them children have been killed in Gaza. Is Australia in danger of being on the wrong side of history here?

 I think Australia has articulated a very principled position. We said these attacks are terrorism against innocent civilians and the taking of hostages. We said from the beginning, that international law needed to be respected, that how Israel defended itself mattered and called for the protection of civilians. We called for humanitarian pauses and what I would say is humanitarian pauses and corridors are important, but they’re not enough. We all want to see steps towards a ceasefire, but it can’t be one sided. We know what Hamas is doing and has hostages and Hamas is still attacking Israel. What I would say is it is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

 There’s a huge contrast between now and the position taken after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Is there a double standard?

 Australia took a very clear position on Ukraine because Russia there has breached the UN Charter. And I appreciate that India has a different relationship with Russia. So I’m conscious of that sensitivity. But we have a view as a country, a middle power that relies on the rule of law on international law, but having a P five country breach the UN Charter is a pretty big problem. Similarly, when it comes to Israel, we have said how Israel defends itself matters. Israel needs to abide by international law. We are concerned about hospitals and we again asserted that hospitals, medical staff, patients need to be protected. So this is a very, very distressing set of events. And as I said, I think it is a humanitarian catastrophe 

PM Albanese’s visit to Beijing this month led to some hopes of a thaw in trade between Australia and China- Do you see a reversal of the Chinese trade ban?

 We think the trade impediments should be removed. We think it’s in the interest of both countries. And we’re a country that wants trading arrangements to be transparent, and parties to work to comply with all of their trading arrangements. That’s a position Australia takes, but we’ve worked to stabilize our relationship with China. The way we describe it to the Australian people is we cooperate where can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest and I think that is a pragmatic, principled approach to the relationship.

 It seemed to be tied with the thaw between the US and Chinese leadership last week in San Francisco- given the number of conflicts the world is occupied with- Middle East, Ukraine etc, will concerns over what is happening in the Indo-Pacific, China’s transgressions of the international rule of law fade into the background?

 There is a lot going on in the world. Our principled position on the South China Sea or in all these waters is that international law, particularly the Law of the Sea, should be observed. However, engagement is of strategic importance. You know, we don’t have to agree with each other but it’s better if we talk,  that’s the approach we’re taking.

 Australia and India have increased their strategic exchanges, military exchanges, maritime exchanges. Do you also see more work on the mutual use of each other’s bases, particularly in the Indian Ocean, which is where some of these concerns are?

 At 2+2 with Foreign and Defence Ministers, we [are] having a discussion about how we can cooperate more together. We were pleased to host Malabar Exercises, and we were pleased to see the visit by an Indian submarine to Australia, the first such visit.

 It seems however that talks on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) have slowed- Where do you think the biggest hurdles lie?

 CECA is an ambitious agreement and we already have an early harvest agreement which gives I think, 85% effectively tariff free coverage. In any such negotiations,  you’ve been part of negotiations, you know, you’ve got the easy bits, then you’ve got the very hard bits. We recognize there’s some sensitivity on both sides, but we think there is benefit in more open trading arrangements for both countries. 

 Trade talks between Canada and India were suspended because of the [Nijjar killing controversy]. Do you think Australia’s stance on that entire episode, as well as on the expulsion of Canadian diplomats from India, has impacted India- Australia ties as well and could that be one of the reasons [for trade talks slowing down]?

 We have a relationship in which there is a great deal of strategic trust and a great deal of ability to express our views on those issues. Australia has a clear, principled view about the sovereignty of both countries. And the respect for the rule of law. And we have made our views known to our Indian friends consistent with those principles.

 You also made your views known publicly, with statements on the India-Canada issue.  Do you think India is in violation of the Vienna Convention? 

 I’m not going to get into a judgment about whether international law or principle has or has not been abrogated, but I will say: this we have an in principle view about the importance of the rule of law and about sovereignty. And we have engaged with our Indian counterparts in accordance with those principles.

 Like Canada, Australia too, has a large Indian diaspora,  a divided diaspora. Prime Minister Modi on two occasions publicly has spoken about the need to protect Indian origin minorities in Australia, do you worry that India Australia ties could be could be impacted the way Canada and your ties have been over this idea?

 We have a large Indian diaspora which is our second largest. I think it’s our fastest growing and part of what drives our relationship is our people. What also matters to us is our multicultural character. We are a country where one in two Australians are either born overseas or have has a parent born overseas, and I’m one of them. We also safeguard our democracy so we believe people have the right to disagree. People have the right to protest peacefully, and people have the right to freedom of expression. What we have made clear on these sorts of issues is that we do not accept vandalism or violence. Those are contrary to our law and to our principles. 

 But has Australia been able to take steps that India had asked against groups particularly Khalistan separatist extremist groups there?

 In relation to that I’d say is we respect your sovereignty. And we also are very clear about the line between peaceful protests, freedom of expression and violence and vandalism. 

 Do you think India overreacted ? 

 I think we understand this is a sensitive issue for India, even in relation to Australia. We have had a good dialogue about this. And I think we are in a place where we both understand the way in which we approach these issues.

 Another sensitive issue is India has rejected an Australian court’s decision to impose a fine on an Indian diplomat, saying that the Australian government, the Australian courts have no local standi. How do you respond to that?

 Firstly we respect the Vienna Convention. Secondly, this matter is before the court still so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. Thirdly, the court in this case appropriately looked at the extent of the application of  immunities under the Vienna Convention, and has engaged substantively with the scope of those immunities. 

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