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Promote a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific is our home and the region that will have the greatest impact on Australia’s future prosperity and security. It encompasses our major trading, strategic and development partners.

As the engine of global growth, the Indo-Pacific offers unparalleled opportunity. Australia is well placed to continue to benefit from the region’s economic dynamism, which supports Australian jobs and standards of living. The economies of Australia and our key regional trade and investment partners are highly complementary. We have extensive and growing connections with the region, through business, education, tourism and migration.

At the same time, the Indo-Pacific is undergoing a profound transition, as economic and strategic weight shifts. Competition over the character of the future regional order continues to sharpen. Australia will need to navigate a more complex and contested region to maximise our economic opportunity and maintain our security.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper identified no more important objective than ensuring the Indo-Pacific evolves peacefully, without an erosion of the fundamental principles on which regional prosperity and cooperation are based. The White Paper also emphasised the importance to Australia of stability and economic progress in Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste.

In 2018–19 the department designed and delivered a range of programs and initiatives to advance the Indo-Pacific agenda outlined in the White Paper. We strengthened Australia’s cooperation with partners, bilaterally and in small groups, to support our vision for an open, inclusive and prosperous region. We worked to reinforce regional architecture, including by promoting greater collaboration on economic and security issues.

The department is delivering on the Prime Minister’s vision for a new chapter in Australia’s relationships with our Pacific island neighbours. Through the Pacific Step-up—and as the region’s leading development assistance partner—we are working closely with Pacific communities to support their economic prosperity ambitions.

Honiara school students welcoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison [DFAT/Qoriniasi Jr. Bale]
School students from Bishop Epalle School in Honiara welcome Prime Minister Scott Morrison [DFAT/Qoriniasi Jr. Bale]

Advancing Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific

Performance measuresHow we rate our performance*
The department’s efforts in the Indo-Pacific advance the interests of Australia and Australians.On track but progress towards advancing Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific is under strain.
The step-up in Pacific and Timor-Leste engagement supports stronger and more resilient economies, capability and regional security.On track

Source: Corporate Plan p. 10–11, PBS program 1.1 p. 28 | Funding: PBS programs 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4

Our performance

We assess that the department’s activities in 2018–19 advanced Australia’s prosperity and security and helped build our influence in a more competitive region.

It is more difficult to measure our achievement in the past year against our longer-term objective of shaping an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific, given shifts in the regional order will play out over a long time period. It is clear however that the region faces significant headwinds, including intensifying strategic competition, trade differences that are disrupting economic growth and greater use of power rather than rules to pursue national interests. Australia’s foreign policy must be active and agile, and draw on all elements of our national power to advance our interests.

The step-up in Pacific and Timor-Leste engagement is also a step-up for the department. During this performance year, we made significant progress. We launched a series of innovative programs that are making a difference to our neighbours. The overall marker of our success in ‘stronger and more resilient economies, capability and regional security’ in the Pacific and Timor-Leste will take some time to measure. On balance, we rate our performance under this measure as ‘on track’.

Engaging the United States

Australia’s alliance with the United States is the bedrock of our security. We enjoy a mutually beneficial partnership anchored in shared interests and values. We contribute significantly to each other’s prosperity—two-way investment reached $1.7 trillion in 2018 and the United States ranks as Australia’s third-largest trading partner.

Australia benefits from deep US engagement in the economic and security affairs of the Indo-Pacific. During the year the department led efforts to bring the Indo-Pacific to the centre of our alliance cooperation and to identify practical ways to address shared regional challenges. We led negotiations on the Indo-Pacific joint work plan—adopted at AUSMIN in July 2018—which sets out a clear roadmap for collaboration in the region.

In November we negotiated and signed a memorandum of understanding with US and Japanese agencies to operationalise our trilateral partnership for infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific. In April trilateral partners undertook the first joint mission in the region—to Papua New Guinea—identifying several infrastructure projects to advance with the Papua New Guinea Government and the private sector.

Through frequent advocacy across the US administration, we positioned Australia as an informed and trusted voice on Indo-Pacific issues as the US approach to the region evolves. We organised four successful portfolio minister visits to the United States, facilitated the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Trump at the G20 summit in June 2019 and provided detailed policy advice on the Indo-Pacific to US officials.

The department secured ongoing tariff exemptions for Australian steel and aluminium exports. Critical to this was our comprehensive advocacy on the mutual benefits of our commercial relationship and of our free trade agreement, in effect since 2005.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Marise Payne and her counterpart United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo [U.S. State Department/Michael Gross]
Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Marise Payne and her counterpart US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo discussing the broad range of interests in our bilateral relationship at a meeting in Washington [US State Department/Michael Gross]

Working with China

Australia’s relationship with China is underpinned by our comprehensive strategic partnership and free trade agreement. China is our largest trading partner, with two-way trade increasing by 17 per cent to $214.6 billion in 2018. Our communities are closely connected—Australia is proud to have hosted 205,000 Chinese students in 2018, a new record.

The department organised and supported ministerial engagements with China during the year. Australia’s strong showing at the Shanghai trade expo in November 2018—with the Trade Minister leading a delegation of more than 200 firms—increased the visibility and reach of Australian business into the Chinese market. The Foreign Minister’s subsequent visit to Beijing in November enhanced bilateral understanding and highlighted our cooperation on regional priorities. The Prime Minister met with the Chinese Premier at the East Asia Summit in November 2018. He also held discussions with the Chinese President at the APEC summit in November and in the margins of the G20 summit in June.

We are now delivering new mechanisms for bilateral engagement, including the National Foundation for Australia–China Relations, announced in March 2019. The foundation will provide practical support and advice to government, private sector and community organisations in Australia on developing links with Chinese counterparts. In April 2019 the department opened a new consulate-general in Shenyang—our fifth diplomatic post in mainland China—providing new opportunities for Australian businesses in a major commercial and industrial hub.

The department also advocated for Australia’s interests in areas of disagreement with China. We expressed our concerns about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and called on China to protect fully the right of individuals to practice their religion free from government interference. We consistently raised Australia’s longstanding position that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law.

While working to ensure differences on some issues did not overshadow the many positives in our bilateral relationship with China, some elements of our agenda over the year in review faced difficulties. Australian coal exports experienced delays clearing some Chinese ports: the department supported the government in advocating the importance of non-discriminatory treatment of Australian trade. We also urged China to conclude its investigations into Australia’s barley exports swiftly and in a manner consistent with WTO rules.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Marise Payne with Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi [DFAT/Chris Crerar]
Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Marise Payne with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the conclusion of the 5th Australia–China Foreign and Strategic Dialogue at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse Beijing [DFAT/Chris Crerar]

Working with major Indo-Pacific democracies

The major Indo-Pacific democracies of Japan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea are of first-order importance to Australia. We are pursuing new economic, strategic and security cooperation with these countries—bilaterally and in small groupings—to support a favourable regional balance. Australia’s cooperation with Japan—our special strategic partner and second-largest trading partner—continued to mature during the year, guided by our shared values and interests, and the close alignment of our priorities across the Indo-Pacific.

The department deepened high-level engagement to address shared strategic interests, including through the eighth Japan–Australia 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations in October. We worked with the Department of Defence to advance negotiations on a bilateral agreement to facilitate defence exercises and operations. We also deepened officials’ exchanges on shared challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific.

The department laid the groundwork for the inaugural Ministerial Economic Dialogue in Tokyo in July 2018. This established a new framework for the bilateral economic relationship and for coordinating our approaches to regional economic integration, including expanding the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and finalising the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (see Priority 2). We also provided policy advice and support for Prime Minister Abe’s historic visit to Darwin in November 2018 and for the subsequent leaders meeting in the margins of the G20 summit in Osaka in June.

Indonesia is vitally important to Australia as a close neighbour and a growing economic and strategic power. Over decades, we have invested in closer cooperation to enrich our political and economic relationship and to tackle common challenges.

The department led the conclusion of two landmark agreements with Indonesia during the year. Our comprehensive strategic partnership—announced during the Prime Minister’s visit to Indonesia in August—commits both sides to a more ambitious shared agenda, bilaterally and in the Indo-Pacific. Our comprehensive economic partnership agreement, signed in March 2019, will allow most Australian exports to enter Indonesia duty-free, improve conditions for our service providers and encourage more two-way investment.

Australia and Indonesia are true regional partners. We co-chair security meetings like the Bali Process and the sub-regional meeting on counter-terrorism, necessary for coordinating responses to transnational threats including people smuggling and terrorism. The Foreign Minister’s attendance at the 11th Bali Democracy Forum demonstrated Australia’s strong support for Indonesia’s international advocacy for the principles of democracy.

Our development cooperation is targeting areas of strategic importance for the bilateral relationship. We partnered with Indonesian agencies to develop infrastructure, skills and institutions to promote economic growth and stability. We supported 15 Australian Government agencies to work alongside Indonesian counterparts to advise and share Australia’s experience on key reforms. Our advice strengthened Indonesia’s international anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing standards.

India sits in the front rank of Australia’s bilateral and regional partnerships and is crucial to the long-term security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.

We supported a higher tempo of bilateral engagement with India in 2018–19, including the first state visit by an Indian President in November, and the opening of the new Australian Consulate-General in Kolkata in March. The Foreign Minister’s address to India’s signature strategic conference, the Raisina Dialogue, in January 2019, deepened India’s appreciation of Australia as an Indo-Pacific partner.

We continued to build the economic relationship and to support Australian industry on trade issues, commencing WTO dispute settlement proceedings with Brazil and Guatemala against India’s sugar subsidies, which are distorting world markets.

Implementing the India Economic Strategy

Over the next 20 years, no single market will offer more growth opportunities for Australian business than India. The department supported Peter Varghese AO to produce an India Economic Strategy, released in July 2018, which sets out a long-term roadmap for growing the economic relationship.

The Prime Minister announced the government’s endorsement of the report, including its ambitious goals for the India relationship by 2035:

  • lifting India into Australia’s top three export markets
  • making India the third-largest destination in Asia for Australian outward investment
  • bringing India into the inner circle of Australia’s strategic partnerships
  • forming people-to-people ties as close as any in Asia.

Early outcomes include a new scholarship program for Indian students, training on biosecurity to improve the flow of agricultural products, air services arrangements that allow more direct flights and the launch of the Undiscover Australia tourism campaign.

The department promoted economic opportunities in India, including through a roadshow engaging business, state governments and the Indian diaspora around Australia, and board meetings with ASX 200 companies. We co-sponsored an India business summit hosted by the Australian Financial Review in November 2018, which was attended by 230 senior business leaders and media commentators.

The Indian Government has commissioned a counterpart strategy for Australia which will be completed in late 2019.

Australia continues to build on its mature economic relationship with the Republic of Korea—our fourth-largest trading partner—by pursuing a higher level of ambition for regional cooperation.

We engaged in high-level discussions on the regional security environment, including on North Korea, by hosting the Senior Officials 2+2 Strategic Dialogue in July 2018. In our high-level consultations on development in March, we identified further opportunities to support development in Southeast Asia and the Pacific and agreed to a secondment exchange between our innovation areas.

The Korea–Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) celebrated its fourth anniversary in December and a sixth round of tariff cuts in January. Thanks to KAFTA, more than 99 per cent of Australia’s goods exports to the Republic of Korea are eligible to enter duty-free or with preferential access. As of 2017, over 92 per cent of eligible two-way trade between Australia and the Republic of Korea used FTA preferences.

Stepping up in the Pacific and Timor-Leste

the Pacific is at the forefront of Australia’s foreign policy. Building on our longstanding partnerships for economic and human development in the region, the department is coordinating the whole-of-government design and implementation of the Pacific Step-up, which will enhance our efforts to tackle the unique needs of Pacific island countries.

In 2018–19 the department delivered Australia’s highest ever contribution to Pacific development of $1.2 billion, providing high-quality, sustainable support in line with Pacific priorities. New development partners are also increasingly engaged in the region, creating a more complex backdrop to our efforts to support Pacific aspirations, and promote a secure, stable and prosperous region.

The department’s response to these challenges is not business as usual. Establishing the Office of the Pacific with more staff—including from 10 agencies across government—is a major shift in how we engage with the Pacific. The office has driven greater whole-of-government coordination and renewed focus on our Pacific engagement, enabling us to work more closely and effectively with our Pacific partners.

To support these efforts, we continued to advance Pacific regionalism, led by the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), including to secure a stronger collective Pacific voice on the international stage. In September we negotiated with Pacific partners on a new regional security declaration—the Boe Declaration—which established an expanded concept of regional security and set the framework for renewed cooperation. Our assistance for Papua New Guinea’s hosting of APEC in 2018, including the leaders meeting in November, helped PNG showcase our region on the global stage.

Our relationship with New Zealand remains our closest and most comprehensive, and the department worked closely with our counterparts to coordinate the Pacific Step-up with New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Reset’. Cooperation with New Zealand in the aftermath of the March 2019 Christchurch terror attacks demonstrated the strength of our relationship and joint commitment to combat terrorism.

Reaffirming the importance of the Pacific, the department facilitated a significant increase in high-level engagement between Australia and Pacific island countries during the year—including 35 ministerial visits—with landmark visits by the Prime Minister to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and Solomon Islands. These significantly elevated our bilateral relationships and underscored the depth of Australia’s commitment to the region.

The opening of Australia’s high commission in Tuvalu in February (our 14th post in the Pacific) further bolstered our diplomatic network, already the largest in the region of any country. New posts planned in the Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands will help further improve our relationships across the Pacific. The department is also designing and implementing new programs to enhance our education, sports and church links, bringing our people even closer together.

Pacific workers in regional Australia

Tebeau Tioan is an aged care worker in Bundanoon, New South Wales, and one of 11 women from Kiribati employed in 2018 by an Australian aged care providers through the Pacific Labour Scheme.

Residents and staff refer to the i-Kiribati workers as hard-working, caring and genuine, with an inherent respect for older people.

Aged care provider Warrigal was one of the first approved employers on the Pacific Labour Scheme, employing the workers from Kiribati when no Australians were available.

The workers received training before leaving Kiribati and graduated with a Certificate III in Individual Support (Ageing, Home and Community) delivered by the Australia Pacific Training Coalition.

The Pacific Labour Scheme offers visas of up to three years for low to semi-skilled workers. In an industry like aged care, the longer-term visa allows stable ongoing relationships between residents and carers.

The scheme is providing workers from the Pacific with skills, experiences and income they can take home to their countries and helping Australian businesses to solve labour shortages.

I-Kiribati personal care worker Tebeau Tioan with Warrigal Aged Care resident Nelly Lawrence [Karen Young/Pacific Labour Facility]
I-Kiribati personal care worker Tebeau Tioan at Warrigal Aged Care in Bundanoon, with resident Nelly Lawrence [Karen Young/Pacific Labour Facility]
Figure 4: Pacific highlights 2018–19

As part of Australia’s commitment to enhancing regional prosperity and economic opportunities, the department rolled out the new Pacific Labour Scheme to nine Pacific island countries (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu) and Timor-Leste. In its first year, 50 employers were approved to recruit through the scheme and 203 Pacific workers were employed in Australia.

More than 12,000 Pacific and Timor-Leste workers were employed in Australia in 2018–19 through the Seasonal Worker Programme. Each worker remitted on average $8,850 to their home country for each work placement. These demand-driven programs helped Australian businesses address labour shortages in rural and regional areas, where no Australian workers were available. They also provided a significant boost for Pacific economies and communities.

The Pacific Labour Facility, established in 2018, supports Australian businesses to use the Pacific Labour Scheme, helps source countries to increase the number of quality workers coming to Australia and provides vital pastoral care support to workers while in Australia.

To support transformative infrastructure development across the Pacific and Timor-Leste, the department designed the $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP). The facility will support the infrastructure priorities of our neighbours, including telecommunications, energy, transport and water. We expect that each infrastructure project financed by AIFFP will involve complex risks that will test the department’s capability on an ongoing basis. To ensure the department is equipped to deliver the AIFFP we are building staff capacity—including through targeted training, contracting expertise, and working with multilateral development banks and others with established systems for loans.

New legislation passed during the year enables Export Finance Australia (formerly Efic) to help more Australian businesses capitalise on commercial opportunities in the Pacific. These new measures build on our significant contribution to infrastructure across the region, including the Coral Sea cable project with Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

High-speed internet for Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands

The people of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands will receive next generation internet connectivity when a submarine cable system is completed by the end of 2019.

The Coral Sea cable system will link Sydney, Port Moresby and Honiara, and connect four provinces within Solomon Islands.

The governments of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are jointly contributing up to one third of the costs, with Australia to fund the majority of the project as a significant investment in the future economic growth and prosperity of our region.

The department engaged Vocus Pty Ltd as the project manager to finalise the marine survey, the manufacture and installation of 5,500km of cable, and civil works in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

According to the World Bank, improving internet access and connectivity in the Pacific could increase the region’s gross domestic product by USD5 billion by 2040 and create an extra 300,000 jobs.

The department facilitated Australia’s ratification of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus) in December—a significant milestone of greater regional economic integration. PACER Plus will provide commercial opportunities for exporters and investors across a range of sectors, and the department is supporting Pacific countries to complete arrangements to bring the agreement into force.

Security and stability are essential foundations for economic prosperity. The department responded to Pacific leaders’ calls for better information sharing to tackle security threats (such as illegal fishing, people smuggling and narcotics trafficking) by developing new regional coordination and capacity mechanisms. This includes the Pacific Fusion Centre and Australia Pacific Security College, which have commenced working with the region to strengthen security responses.

As a region of large ocean states, the security of maritime areas is vitally important to Pacific island countries for cultural identity, food security and economic development. The department has created the Pacific Maritime Boundaries Section in the Office of the Pacific to help Pacific island countries establish their maritime zones. We are also supporting major Department of Defence-led investments in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu to strengthen their security, sovereignty and capacity.

Climate change is a key priority for our immediate region and the department is rolling out its four-year, $300 million package to support Pacific climate and disaster resilience. A further $500 million over five years has been pledged for the Pacific, starting in 2020–21. We are also mainstreaming climate and disaster resilience into Australia’s aid investments across the Pacific, including through Pacific Step-up initiatives such as the AIFFP.

We are committed to supporting our Pacific family in times of crisis. The department coordinated Australia’s assistance to Vanuatu to evacuate and resettle the residents of Ambae Island during major volcanic eruptions, and supported Solomon Islands to prevent a major oil spill from devastating Rennell Island and its UNESCO-listed world heritage site.

This support builds on our longstanding commitment to human development in the Pacific, which is reflected in our record development contribution in 2018–19. We are continuing to focus on gender equality, health and governance, and redressing persistent challenges that undermine national and regional security. See Priority 4 for more detail on our development program in the Pacific.

The Foreign Minister’s visit to Timor-Leste in July 2018 reinforced Australia’s commitment to revitalising our partnership, following the signing of the maritime boundary treaty. Both governments worked closely on the transitional arrangements needed to bring the treaty into force and to draft the implementing legislation. The high-level visits have continued, with Australia hosting a third of Timorese parliamentarians in 2019. In March 2019 Foreign Minister Payne signed a memorandum of understanding which welcomed Timor-Leste into Australia’s new Pacific Labour Scheme.

Timorese worker picking berries at Hillwood Berries in Tasmania as part of the Seasonal Worker Programme [Pacific Labour Facility/Karen Young]
A Timorese worker picking berries at Hillwood Berries in Tasmania as part of the Seasonal Worker Programme [Pacific Labour Facility/Karen Young]

Working with Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia lies at the heart of the Indo-Pacific and at the centre of our efforts to promote regional stability and prosperity. As a longstanding partner in Southeast Asia, Australia has increased efforts to ensure we remain a leading economic, development and strategic partner for the region.

With the Department of Defence, we hosted the joint ministerial committee meeting with Singapore, where ministers welcomed progress in implementing our comprehensive strategic partnership. We supported multiple visits to Singapore by the Prime Minister as well as foreign and trade ministers to catalyse new areas of cooperation, including on digital trade.

We are strengthening Australia’s partnership with Malaysia as it pursues an ambitious reform agenda. Through two-way visits, new policy dialogues and Australian capacity building, we have deepened links between our democratic institutions. During secretary-level talks, we promoted Australia’s economic and strategic priorities and discussed the next phase of regional cooperation under our strategic partnership.

The Foreign Minister’s visit to Vietnam in June added further momentum to our new strategic partnership and deepened discussion of our converging interests in the Indo-Pacific. The first iteration of our Oceans Dialogue advanced our cooperation on maritime governance and international law. Our development program is helping Vietnam implement the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, providing more opportunities for exporters in both countries.

The department is supporting Myanmar’s long-term democratic and economic transition, including through our development assistance. We continued to work with Myanmar, Bangladesh and other partners towards a long-term and durable solution to the Rohingya crisis. The Australian Government condemned atrocities committed in Rakhine State and other parts of Myanmar, and imposed targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on five members of the Myanmar military. We organised the Foreign Minister’s visit to Myanmar in December, where she advocated for access by UN agencies to affected areas and for the needs of displaced people.

Thai cave rescue

When 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand in mid-2018, the department was quick to respond.

Working with the Australian Federal Police, Defence and Emergency Management Australia, we coordinated the Australian Government’s response to support the rescue. This included the rapid deployment of Dr Richard Harris, an internationally recognised cave diver and anaesthetist, and his long-term dive partner, Dr Craig Challen, as members of the Australian Medical Assistance Team. We also deployed three officers from our Crisis Response Team to provide extra resources to support this high-profile and complex operation. The team worked closely with Thai authorities and international counterparts.

Thailand recognised the important role played by Dr Harris and Dr Challen with the conferral of the Most Admirable Order of the Direkgunabhorn Award. The Thais regard Australia’s contribution to this rescue as one of the most significant milestones in our bilateral relationship in recent years.

Staff from the Australian Embassy Bangkok and DFAT’s Humanitarian Branch involved in Australian efforts to assist with the Thai cave rescue [DFAT]
Officers from the Australian Embassy Bangkok and our Humanitarian Branch involved in the Australian efforts to assist Thai authorities with the rescue from Tham Luang Cave [DFAT]

We are working with Thailand to advance its priorities as ASEAN chair in 2019, including the conclusion of RCEP negotiations. We delivered a memorandum of understanding on cyber and digital cooperation, which was signed by the Foreign Minister in Bangkok in January. We are also working together to tackle cross-border challenges in the Mekong—Australia accepted Thailand’s invitation to become an Ayeyawady–Chao Phraya–Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Development Partner.

The department worked closely with the Philippines during the year to build effective counter-terrorism skills, assist civilians displaced by conflict and to support the transition to a new autonomous regional government in Muslim Mindanao.

Canberra fellowships

The Canberra Fellowships Program—launched in September—brings together current and emerging leaders from the Indo-Pacific to deepen their understanding of Australian perspectives and expertise in their field of work.

Participants also learn about Australian people and our values. During the year, we designed and delivered 14 visits involving 93 participants from 20 countries. Each visit focused on a particular theme, from challenges facing the Indo-Pacific to managing telecommunications sectors.

Highlights included visits by:

  • the Timor-Leste Foreign Affairs, Defence and National Security Parliamentary Committee, which focused on maritime issues
  • senior representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and the Mekong River Commission. This group engaged with Australian experts on cross-boundary water management, as well as broader energy governance
  • emerging female leaders from Papua New Guinea, focusing on women in leadership and building networks with the private sector, government and civil society in Australia.

We presented a diverse and contemporary experience of Australia. Women had a strong presence at meetings and events, held across the country, and visitors engaged with Indigenous leaders and participated in Indigenous cultural events.

Working with South and West Asia

We promote stability, economic growth and regional cooperation in South and West Asia—as a significant part of efforts in the Indo-Pacific to advance Australia’s interests.

Australia maintained support for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces so that Afghanistan can defend itself and its people from terrorism. The department also responded to severe food and water shortages, working with development and humanitarian partners to provide food packages, and consulting with Afghan ministries on longer-term solutions. This is part of our long-term efforts to promote stability, security and prosperity in Afghanistan.

We were quick to assist Australian citizens and the Sri Lankan Government after terror attacks in April. This included coordinating support from the Australian Federal Police to investigate the attacks and assisting to strengthen security arrangements at Sri Lanka’s parliament. We also continued our close cooperation to counter people smuggling.

Australia supported the Maldives to enter the Indian Ocean Rim Association following elections in September. We held inaugural senior officials talks with Nepal to build cooperation on education services, tourism, development priorities and regional stability.

In Bangladesh we provided substantial humanitarian support to address the needs of nearly one million displaced Rohingya, amid the largest humanitarian crisis in our region.

We advocated consistently at senior levels on behalf of a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. She left the country in May after her conviction was overturned.

Building regional collaboration

Regional architecture is taking on greater significance for Australia as the rules and norms that have underpinned stability in the Indo-Pacific come under greater pressure.

Australia is a strategic partner of ASEAN, which sits at the centre of our vision for the Indo-Pacific. By progressing the 15 initiatives from the 2018 ASEAN–Australia special summit, we are supporting Southeast Asia’s collective capacity in areas such as regional economic integration and counter-terrorism. We also developed new initiatives, announced by the Prime Minister in November, to support partners’ sovereignty and resilience in the areas of maritime security, economic governance and infrastructure, and our Greater Mekong Water Resources Program.

We helped strengthen the East Asia Summit (EAS) as the Indo-Pacific’s premier political and security forum. At the summit in November 2018, leaders adopted an Australian-initiated statement committing regional countries to expand cooperation on cyber security. In early 2019 Australia and Malaysia hosted an EAS seminar to increase understanding of—and support for—international law in the context of maritime security.

We are working with Pacific partners through the Pacific Islands Forum to advance the development, security and foreign policy priorities of the Pacific. The department is also leading whole-of-government efforts to strengthen the security and stability of the Indian Ocean region, including through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). We are helping to build IORA’s architecture, encouraging a sharper focus on maritime safety and security, and co-chairing meetings on women’s economic empowerment and trade modernisation.

Alongside our multilateral efforts, the department helped strengthen minilateral groupings that support the regional vision for a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Through cooperation under our trilateral strategic dialogue with Japan and the United States, we supported Southeast Asian countries to address maritime security and safety challenges, and increased our cooperation on sustainable infrastructure. Our engagement and collaboration on regional issues with India, Japan and the United States deepened through quadrilateral consultations.

Maritime security

As a major trading nation surrounded by three oceans, Australia’s security and prosperity rely on an open, stable and rules-based maritime domain. With the region’s seas becoming more congested and contested, we are stepping up efforts to build the capacity of regional partners to address challenges such as terrorism, people smuggling, maritime safety and illegal fishing.

We are reinforcing and increasing our longstanding support to Pacific island countries to define their maritime zones and secure their maritime rights.

In Southeast Asia we are delivering a new maritime cooperation package that will build countries’ resilience in their maritime domains, helping them to protect their sovereignty and sustain crucial livelihoods. Our diplomatic engagement has promoted adherence to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, maritime safety and respect for freedom of navigation and overflight, including in the South China Sea.

We worked closely with the Department of Defence to ensure the success of Indo-Pacific Endeavour in 2019—the largest peacetime deployment of Australian Defence Force personnel to South and Southeast Asia. Australian naval vessels called into ports in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, better preparing us to work together in the future.

Infrastructure investment

The Indo-Pacific has a substantial need for infrastructure—amounting to $26 trillion from 2016 to 2030 according to Asian Development Bank estimates. Meeting this need in a sustainable way will help drive economic growth and stability across the region—vital to Australia’s prosperity. The department is working to ensure regional countries have access to a range of sources of infrastructure financing and can make well-informed investment choices.

To support this, the department is designing and implementing initiatives—and establishing new infrastructure partnerships—that will significantly boost our contribution to infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific. These include:

  • The Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific—a new loan and grant facility to support development of high-priority economic infrastructure in Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste
  • The Southeast Asia Economic Governance and Infrastructure Initiative—a multi-country facility to support good government policy and provide technical advice on economic reform and infrastructure decision-making
  • The South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity initiative—to promote investment in high-quality infrastructure that better links the economies of South Asia
  • The Australia–Japan–United States Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership—to cooperate with regional governments and the private sector in support of projects that adhere to international standards and principles
  • The Australia–Japan–United States–New Zealand PNG Electrification Partnership—to help Papua New Guinea with its goal of connecting 70 per cent of its population to electricity by 2030.

Building and maintaining the capabilities required to deliver these programs to a high standard will continue to be a major focus of the department’s risk management strategy.

Responding to the threat posed by North Korea

Australia remains committed to maintaining pressure on North Korea until it takes concrete steps towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation as set out in UN Security Council resolutions.

In 2018–19 we continued implementing United Nations Security Council and Australia’s autonomous sanctions against North Korea. We conducted regular advocacy on sanctions enforcement with Southeast Asian countries, and worked with New Zealand, the United States and Japan to build Pacific capacity on sanctions implementation.

We also supported the Department of Defence’s deployment of maritime patrol aircraft to Japan, as well as a naval vessel to the region, to monitor and deter ships evading North Korea sanctions. We followed up with the states where vessels of concern were registered.

Building relationships through the New Colombo Plan

Under the New Colombo Plan (NCP) the department is supporting thousands of young Australians to study and undertake internships in the Indo-Pacific. We are building institutional links and developing connections for a new generation of leaders to draw on in their future careers—growing cultural understanding and contributing to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

Performance measureHow we rate our performance*
New Colombo Plan engagement delivers enduring people-to-people, institutional and business links.On track
At least 10,000 Australian undergraduates supported to study in the Indo-Pacific region.Achieved
NCP participants build relationships in the region and promote the value of the NCP experience.On track
Universities, the private sector and partner governments support implementation of the NCP.On track
Alumni are engaged through networks that foster professional development and ongoing connections with the region.On track

Source: Corporate Plan p. 11, PBS program 1.5 p. 33 | Funding: PBS program 1.5

Our performance

An independent evaluation of the NCP commissioned this year found that in its first five years, the initiative had ‘turbo-charged’ the number of Australian university students studying and doing internships in the Indo-Pacific. The NCP has provided awards for around 50,000 students to study overseas, and the evaluation confirmed that the initiative is growing a cohort of alumni with valuable regional experience and networks.

In 2018–19 the department awarded 11,660 NCP scholarships and short-term grants. Forty Australian universities and more than 300 private sector organisations are now participating, and are central to implementing the program and its success in delivering strong institutional, business and people-to-people links.

We have been working to increase the diversity of students and the range of host locations. This year—for the first time—scholarships were awarded for Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Samoa, and short-term grants for Niue and French Polynesia. In the 2019 scholarship round, five per cent of students are Indigenous—up from less than one per cent in previous years and three times the percentage of Indigenous domestic university students. A total of 21 per cent of NCP students identify as coming from a lower socio-economic background, 17 per cent are the first in their family to attend university and 30 per cent are from regional Australia.

Australian businesses are increasingly recognising the value of the program and providing new opportunities for work experience. Five businesses provided sponsorship support for eight NCP scholarships in 2019, up from four scholarships the year before. More than 30 industry leaders with Indo-Pacific connections promoted the program as NCP business champions. In July global law firm King & Wood Mallesons co-hosted the first NCP industry symposium for business, government and universities on preparing legal graduates for international careers.

Figure 5: Five years of the New Colombo Plan — scholarship & mobility grants 2014–2019

The department has established a growing community of active NCP alumni who promote the program. All states and territories now have alumni programs—with the launch of the initiative in the Northern Territory in July—as well as alumni ambassadors to promote the program in their universities and communities. The department partners with Asialink Business to deliver networking and development opportunities, and more than 1,900 alumni have taken part. There were 3,196 members of the NCP alumni LinkedIn group during the year, up from 2,000 the year before, reflecting a strong and engaged alumni cohort.

Feedback is positive from governments in the region, universities, business and institutions. Surveys confirm 99 per cent of NCP scholars and 94 per cent of short-term students believe they are better prepared to engage with the Indo-Pacific after their NCP experiences.

Advising and supporting our ministers

Performance measureHow we rate our performance*
High level of satisfaction of ministers and key stakeholders with the quality and timeliness of advice, briefing and support in relation to Australia’s international objectives.On track

Source: Corporate Plan p. 10, PBS program 1.1 p. 29 | Funding: PBS program 1.1

Our performance

In 2018–19 the department arranged 52 visits for our four portfolio ministers to 39 countries for a combined duration of 247 days. We arranged travel logistics, identified strategic objectives, prepared briefs and speeches, and managed meetings and events.

We worked with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to support 10 prime ministerial visits to 12 countries. We worked across government to support visits by the Governor-General, federal government ministers and parliamentarians, as well as visits by state and territory representatives.

The department surveyed portfolio ministers’ offices in April to measure levels of satisfaction with our support. They agreed or strongly agreed our cables, daily briefs, alerts and media summaries were valuable. The offices strongly agreed the department provided a high level of support, especially for portfolio ministers’ visits overseas and for their involvement in cabinet and parliament.

Ministers’ offices provided variable feedback on the quality and timeliness of the department’s briefings and submissions. To address this feedback we initiated several new internal campaigns during the year including to lift writing standards and improve records of conversation.

A survey of key external stakeholders rated our performance highly. Stakeholders, including other government agencies and industry groups, were surveyed for the annual divisional business reviews.

Figure 6: DFAT support for ministers, briefing and other products
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