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Promote a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific

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Australia’s future is tied to the Indo-Pacific. This is the region where our interests are most directly affected and where we can have the greatest impact.

Before COVID-19, a profound transition was underway in a more complex and contested Indo-Pacific region. Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper outlined a policy agenda to respond to this transition. Its settings and long-term priorities remain broadly appropriate, but COVID-19 has accelerated some trends and our strategic context is now characterised by greater uncertainty and economic fragility. We continue to pursue our vision of a region in which adherence to rules delivers lasting peace, where the rights and sovereignty of all states are respected and where open markets facilitate the free flow of trade and capital. Australia still seeks a balance in the regional order that serves our interests, even in the face of disruption and sharper strategic competition.

The department supported government to deepen Australia’s Indo-Pacific engagement, including in response to COVID-19, in ways that strengthen our network of partnerships. We have further invested in the resilience of our neighbours to external shocks and interference. This contributes to Australia’s own security and influence. We pursued active and determined diplomacy through bilateral channels, small groups and regional institutions. We have worked to reinforce rules that constrain the exercise of coercive power and to deliver agreements that expand access and opportunity for Australian business. The department supported the government in navigating a more complex relationship with China. We continued to invest in the long-term stability, resilience and development of our Pacific family by coordinating whole-of-government activities under the Pacific Step-up.

How the Indo-Pacific responds to and recovers from COVID-19 will have a strong bearing on Australia’s future security and prosperity, including our own economic recovery. Australia will continue to protect our national interests and will support our neighbours to chart a course for the region and out of the crisis.

We helped our neighbours prepare for and respond to the pandemic and started to build a regional pathway to sustainable economic recovery under our Partnerships for Recovery strategy. Through cooperation with others, we amplified our impact and reinforced our key relationships.

Advancing Australia's interests in the Indo-Pacific

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

Our diplomatic efforts in the Indo-Pacific advance Australia’s interests.

On track

Australia’s Step-up in Pacific and Timor-Leste engagement supports stronger and more resilient economies, development outcomes and regional security.

Partially on track, because of the impact of COVID-19

Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 11, PBS 2019–20 program 1.1 p. 28 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 programs 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and 1.6

*Our assessments are informed by economic and trade data, tracking our implementation of government decisions, agreements with foreign governments, outcomes from dialogues with foreign governments, and development results from the department’s Aid Program Performance Reports

Our performance

In 2019–20 the department supported engagement and outcomes that advanced the long-term regional objectives outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Highlights from the first nine months of the year included supporting the Prime Minister’s visits to the United States and Vietnam, the launch of the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, the
Fiji–Australia Vuvale Partnership, the Plan of Action for the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, concluding a new digital economy agreement with Singapore, elevating quadrilateral consultations with the United States, Japan and India to ministerial level, and establishing two new diplomatic missions in Palau and the Cook Islands.

In the wake of the pandemic, the department reoriented a wide range of its capabilities to support Australians in the region, the resilience of our neighbours, and economic and security interests. Despite travel restrictions, ministers and senior officials continued to invest in our Indo-Pacific relationships, through virtual means. For example, we supported the elevation of ties with India to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership at a Leaders’ Virtual Summit in June, and our relationship with ASEAN countries at a Special ASEAN–Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on COVID-19.

At the same time, the unprecedented disruption caused by COVID-19 had a significant impact on our operating environment. The day-to-day business of regional diplomacy and delivering projects was constrained by travel restrictions and border closures, and competing demands on some partners. While all posts in our overseas network remained open, there was a temporary reduction of staff at many. The majority of our Indo-Pacific initiatives remain on track, but we have needed to pause others. On balance, we rate our performance under this measure as ‘on track’.

Engaging with the United States

The United States plays a central role in Australia’s prosperity and security and makes a vital contribution to our Indo-Pacific interests. Our relationship is underpinned by leader-level engagement, which was advanced by the Prime Minister’s state visit to Washington in September, supported by the department. The strength of the leaders’ relationship was made clear when the President hosted a State Dinner for the Prime Minister during the visit—the second only of the Trump Administration. Leaders agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in areas including science, space and critical minerals.

The United States and Australia are working together—and with like-minded partners—to shape a region that is open, inclusive, prosperous and rules-based. In August we organised the Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) hosted by Foreign Minister Payne with Defence Minister Reynolds in Sydney. This affirmed and shaped the Alliance’s regional focus, including to further assist countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific to advance their economic and security priorities through initiatives such as high-quality infrastructure financing and a commitment to support all countries’ national resilience and sovereignty in the face of emerging threats.

In 2020 we marked the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement. Over this time, goods and services trade between our countries has almost doubled. The department continued comprehensive advocacy to maintain our market access, including in the context of US tariffs on steel and aluminum, and the challenging economic conditions created by COVID-19.

The department drove work with the United States to tackle the twin health and economic challenges posed by the pandemic. Our diplomatic collaboration helped ensure availability of medical supplies for our two countries, facilitated the return of Australian citizens from overseas and advocated for minimal disruption to international trade. Our cooperation to address the pandemic followed the invaluable assistance provided during the Australian summer by US firefighters, three of who lost their lives fighting bushfires in the Snowy Mountains.


Our relationship with China has never been more complex and China-related issues never more consequential to our national interests. The department has played a critical role at the centre of government in responding to this challenge.

Both countries have benefited from our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, natural economic complementarities and extensive people-to-people links. Australia is important to China as a reliable supplier of safe, quality foods (meat, grains, horticulture, dairy) as well as minerals and resources (iron ore, LNG, coal)—the building blocks of China’s economy. China is our number one export market and a source of foreign direct investment. Australia’s trade with China grew by 17 per cent in 2019, having grown on average by 12 per cent annually over the past five years.

Australia and China also have differences: we are an open democracy and China is a one-party state. At times we have needed to stand firm on areas of difference. It is important for Australia’s national resilience and prosperity that we advance the full range of Australia’s national interests, across security and economic and trade interests. The department supported the government in navigating this complex relationship, working across government to progress policies that uphold our security and values while maintaining scope for cooperation.

Throughout 2019 and 2020 the department advocated for the interests of Australian exporters, for example the barley industry in response to China’s imposition of anti-dumping and countervailing duties and beef producers facing noncompliance issues.

We consistently expressed our concerns about human rights, including in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and led the government’s response to the situation in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

Australia has a strong interest in Hong Kong’s success—it is home to one of our largest expatriate communities and our largest commercial presence in Asia. We have extensive and enduring interests in Hong Kong, built on strong trade and investment connections and close people-to-people links.

The department led the government’s response to protests in Hong Kong in 2019–20, ensuring up-to-date travel advice and the delivery of consular services to Australian travellers. Between August and February, we deployed 15 crisis response team personnel to Hong Kong. We supported ministers to promote and advocate Australian interests, including through a number of high-level statements issued with international partners. The Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong worked closely with Australian business and community members to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving situation on the ground, and to ensure policy-makers in Canberra were making decisions based on the latest and most accurate information.

With the devastating effects of COVID-19 and impacts on international travel, the Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong provided timely advice to the 100,000 Australians based there, and helped travellers transiting en route to Australia from across the region.

The Australian Government expressed deep concern—including through statements issued jointly with other countries—at China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong on 30 June. The law undermines the ‘One Country Two Systems’ framework and the city’s high degree of autonomy guaranteed in the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

At the same time, the department organised and supported high-level engagements with China including between leaders at the East Asia Summit in November—to progress our economic and strategic interests. The Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister led Australia’s delegation to the China International Import Expo.

We worked to facilitate the departure from Wuhan of Australian citizens after the outbreak of COVID-19 and continued to provide consular advice and assistance to others. We facilitated delivery to Wuhan of much-needed personal protective equipment, helped resolve issues relating to trade in medical products and supported implementation of the international freight mechanism.

Australia supports practical cooperation and engagement with China, for the benefit of both countries. The announcement of the National Foundation for Australia–China Relations supports this commitment. The Foundation has been operational ahead of its formal launch, building on existing and developing new cooperation and community links. As part of its operations, the Foundation supported the Australia–China High Level Dialogue in January 2020. It also provided an ad hoc grant to the Doherty Institute to collaborate on COVID-19 research with Hong Kong and Chinese universities on immune responses and vaccine efficacy.

DFAT Secretary with Hon John Howard sharing thoughts with Chinese counterparts before dining.
Australian and Chinese representatives at the 6th Australia–China High Level Dialogue in Sydney. Left to right: former Prime Minister the Hon John Howard OM AC, Secretary Frances Adamson, Honorary President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs Li Zhaoxing and Australia’s Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher [Peter Morris]

Working with Indo-Pacific partners

The value of our Special Strategic Partnership with Japan continues to grow, as we work closely together towards an open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. The department supported frequent, high-level engagement with Japan, including between our prime ministers, foreign and trade ministers. This helped to further expand our cooperation in priority areas such as maritime security and infrastructure development.

We have worked with Japan in times of need. We facilitated Japan’s generous support to Australia’s bushfire response, including protective masks, two Hercules transport aircraft, and over $5 million in cash donations. During COVID-19, we worked with Japan to repatriate both countries’ citizens, including the return of 170 Australians aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. We also cooperated in mitigating the health and economic impacts of the pandemic in the Pacific.

Our economic partnership continues to grow and evolve, focusing on new opportunities in hydrogen, critical minerals and rare earths, and critical technology, including 5G. At the second Ministerial Economic Dialogue in January, Australia and Japan signed the Joint Statement on Cooperation on Hydrogen and Fuel Cells. We marked the fifth anniversary of the Japan–Australia Economic Partnership Agreement, under which two-way trade has increased 31 per cent since 2015.

3 foreign ministers 'chain link' hands in front of their respective countries flag.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Marise Payne with then Japanese Foreign Minister (later Defense Minister) Kono Taro and United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo at the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue Ministerial Meeting held in Bangkok on 1 August [DFAT/Korakosh Phanpruksa]

We worked closely together to counter terrorism and support arms control. Japan supported the Statement on Preventing Exploitation of the Internet for Terrorism and Violent Extremism Conducive to Terrorism proposed by Australia and adopted by the G20. We jointly convened a ministerial meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in November.

The Australia–Japan Foundation continued to promote people-to-people links and supported science and technology, sport, arts and education programs.

Australia’s ties with Indonesia are of first order importance for Australia. The department supported President Joko Widodo’s state visit in February, which included an address to a joint session of Parliament and signing the Plan of Action for the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The President’s visit also foreshadowed closer bilateral and regional engagement in response to COVID-19. The Plan of Action (2020–2024) reinforces existing joint priorities, including managing common defence and security challenges, and promoting democracy in the Indo-Pacific through the Bali Democracy Forum. In December we supported the Foreign Minister’s attendance at the Bali Democracy Forum and the 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting in Bali.

Another pillar of the Plan of Action involves forging a stronger economic partnership. The Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) will be the centrepiece of our economic relationship and a focal point for developing new trade and investment opportunities as we emerge from COVID-19. We have also worked closely with Indonesia and regional partners to share best practice for coral reef management, including through our role as co-hosts of the Secretariat for the International Coral Reef Initiative.

Our relationship with India is grounded in shared heritage of democracy and the rule of law, converging strategic and economic interests, and strong people-to-people links. To pursue our aligned goals for the region, we elevated our relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) at a Virtual Prime Ministerial Summit in June. The Prime Ministerial Summit delivered eight agreements to drive cooperation with India covering defence, maritime safety and security, the marine environment, cyber security, critical minerals, water resources, skills and governance.

We continued to build on our economic relationship with India, guided by an independent report to government—An India Economic Strategy to 2035. We supported a visit by the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment in February, leading a delegation of more than 120 business people to build stronger links with Indian industry. As part of the CSP, India and Australia decided to re-engage on the proposed Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, which has the potential to generate new export opportunities for Australian businesses.

Our relationship with the Republic of Korea—Australia’s fourth largest trading partner—continues to deepen. There were five ministerial visits to Seoul, including an August visit by the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment which strengthened our engagement in hydrogen issues, and a visit by the Foreign Minister in November to reinforce support for peace on the Korean Peninsula and cooperation on gender equality.

In December we hosted the fourth Australia–Republic of Korea Foreign and Defence Ministers’ 2+2 Meeting. Ministers committed to closer engagement to support and shape an open, inclusive and transparent Indo-Pacific, signed an updated Memorandum of Understanding on Development Cooperation and agreed to resume annual Joint Economic Committee meetings.

Our relationship with New Zealand is our closest and most comprehensive. We continued to work closely to promote the global rule of law and an open and liberalised trading system in an increasingly challenging global context. Our partnership has deepened during COVID-19 as we worked together to plan a future trans-Tasman Safe Travel Zone, when conditions allow. We also worked with New Zealand to support Pacific partners under Australia’s Step-up and New Zealand’s Pacific Reset policies, and coordinated COVID-19 health and economic assistance to our neighbours in the Pacific.

The enduring strength of the trans-Tasman relationship was demonstrated by the efforts of New Zealand firefighters during Australia’s 2019–20 bushfire emergency and in the cooperation of emergency responders and medical personnel in response to the tragic Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption on 9 December.

Stepping up in the Pacific and Timor-Leste

Australia’s relationships with our neighbours in the Pacific region are underscored by our common interests and values, shared history, decades of sustained engagement, and our collective interests in a stable and prosperous Pacific. In partnership over many years with countries of our region, we have worked to help grow economies, build resilience and enhance regional stability through our development programs, our defence, policing and border security cooperation, and our humanitarian and disaster responses in times of need.

Through the Pacific Step-up we have lifted the ambition and scope of our engagement, elevating the Pacific to one of our highest foreign policy priorities and making it a central part of our long-term objective of an open, inclusive and prosperous region. The Office of the Pacific led delivery of the government’s ambitious whole-of-government policy agenda, including Australia’s largest ever development assistance contribution of $1.4 billion in 2019–20. This positioned us well to respond quickly to support Pacific countries prepare for and respond to COVID-19. Most Step-up initiatives remain on track, while a number have been paused due to travel restrictions and border closures. We are adapting our major initiatives, like the Pacific labour mobility scheme and the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP), to respond to new circumstances. We have assessed our overall performance on our Step-up objectives as ‘partially on track’. Between July and March, we supported 33 Australian ministerial-level visits to the Pacific and two visits to Australia by Pacific island Prime Ministers. This high level of engagement enabled discussions with Pacific counterparts to continue virtually as COVID-19 unfolded.

In May we facilitated the Pacific Women Leaders’ virtual meeting co-chaired by Foreign Minister and Minister for Women Marise Payne and Samoan Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa. This focused on the impact of COVID-19 on women’s health, economic security and personal safety in the Pacific.

Australia’s diplomatic network—already the largest across the region—expanded in late 2019 with the establishment of our embassy in Koror, Palau, and our high commission in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands.

The Fiji–Australia Vuvale Partnership

Prime Minister Morrison and Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama signed the Vuvale Partnership in Canberra in September. In Fijian, vuvale means family. The Vuvale Partnership is a platform for strengthening the enduring Australia–Fiji relationship, based on family principles: rust, respect and mutual support.

Already, both countries have shown their commitment to the Vuvale Partnership. In January, Fiji deployed troops to assist with bushfire recovery in Victoria. The ’Bula Force’ cleared roads and won the hearts of the local communities they helped. Australia has since reciprocated. When COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold struck in March and April, Australia responded quickly by delivering health and humanitarian supplies. Australia also redirected development assistance to provide direct budget support to the Government of Fiji, demonstrating a fast, effective way of meeting the country’s needs, a sign of our vuvale spirit.

We continued to advance our bilateral partnerships and Pacific regionalism by supporting our membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. The Foreign Minister joined the Special Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting virtually in April and the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway’s Ministerial Action Group in June to lock in best-practice protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and enable the movement of essential personnel and supplies around our region. In June Australia provided
$5.5 million to the World Food Programme to support our regional COVID-19 response, including $4 million for air transport and logistics services for the Pathway and assessments of the impact of COVID-19 on food security in the Pacific.

Australia provided a USD300 million loan to help Papua New Guinea (PNG) align its budget on a more sustainable trajectory, fund delivery of core government services, and support longer-term economic reforms. The loan injected much-needed foreign currency into the market, stimulating private sector activities and benefiting trade and investment in PNG.

The department led a significant intensification in our engagement with Timor-Leste. This included supporting the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to visit Dili in August to mark the 20th anniversary of the Popular Consultation that led to Timor-Leste’s independence. The first visit by an Australian prime minister in over a decade, it heralded a new chapter in our bilateral relationship. The Prime Minister exchanged notes with his Timorese counterpart, bringing into force our new Maritime Boundary Treaty. This reflects our full commitment to the independence, sovereignty and economic sustainability of Timor-Leste. The Prime Minister announced Australia’s support for the design of a new undersea fibre-optic cable connecting Australia and Timor-Leste.

In December the department hosted officials from Timor-Leste and Indonesia in Darwin to discuss strengthening trade and investment links with each other and Northern Australia. In January a meeting of Australian and Timorese senior officials agreed to strengthen cooperation in maritime security, and support Timor-Leste’s ability to monitor and protect its interests in the Timor Sea.

Australia’s labour mobility initiatives make a valuable contribution to our economy—including in the agriculture sector—and support Pacific and Timor-Leste communities through remittances. Before COVID-19, demand had been growing for both the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme. Since the pandemic was declared, we have been supporting workers in Australia who were unable to return home. New visa measures, announced on 4 April, enabled around 11,000 Pacific and Timorese workers to remain in Australia and continue working for an additional 12 months. We provided workers and their employers with the latest health advice and other support, including pastoral care and information in their languages.

African Swine Fever – Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste

Australia supported PNG and Timor-Leste to diagnose and manage their first ever outbreak of African Swine Fever. This livestock disease causes significant mortality in pigs—animals that play an important economic and cultural role for our near neighbours.

The first cases of African Swine Fever were publicly confirmed in PNG in March. The department provided funding to provide technical on-the-ground support for PNG, including mapping and epidemiology advice, laboratory support, training and laboratory supplies, a nation-wide risk awareness campaign, logistics and containment support and training for farmers to strengthen animal health. Our support has helped PNG implement a rapid response effort which has significantly raised awareness of the disease and helped limit the spread.

In Dili, the first cases were diagnosed in September after local samples were sent to the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness. Australia deployed veterinarians, laboratory technicians and testing equipment to support Timor-Leste to manage the disease. The Australian team helped train local experts to use laboratory equipment, and to survey the extent of the outbreak. This helped farmers to manage the disease and establish disease-free quarantine zones. With the onset of COVID-19, Australian experts, through a partnership with the Victorian Department of Agriculture, continued to support Timor-Leste remotely with technical advice and essential laboratory supplies.

We progressed the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus to support stronger regional economic integration and trade relations. It has been ratified by seven countries (Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Niue and Solomon Islands) with eight required for it to enter into force. We will continue to work with New Zealand and our Pacific partners to secure the agreement’s entry into force and ensure the benefits are realised.

Since January, the department has worked with Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste to prepare for and respond to COVID-19. We swiftly reorientated our Step-up initiatives to respond to their acute needs. While this challenge was unprecedented, we have drawn on our well established relationships with the region to chart a path to economic recovery and build resilience to future pandemics.

We established an essential services and humanitarian corridor to help move essential supplies and personnel into the region. We reprioritised development assistance to meet urgent health, economic, social and humanitarian needs in the Pacific and Timor-Leste and to ensure critical government services could be delivered. We also supported community responses and investments focused on the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls.

As the pandemic unfolded and global partners withdrew international staff, we moved quickly to put special measures in place to retain 71 per cent of our critical development personnel in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, and ensure additional deployments where possible. We continued delivering development assistance with support from partner country nationals, and ensured international staff who were unable to remain in country could provide services remotely.

We continued to build people-to-people links with the Pacific. The Office of the Pacific’s PacificAus Sports delivered 27 high-profile sports activities in Australia and the Pacific, involving more than 130 individual Pacific and Australian athletes—61 per cent of all funded activities targeted women and girls. COVID-19 delayed the planned first intake of students in the Secondary Schools Scholarships Program.

We delivered phase one of the Pacific Church Partnership Program with Pacific church leaders, hosted by Prime Minister Morrison at Parliament House in December. In April, the program pivoted to help church partners in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu respond to Tropical Cyclone Harold and to implement hygiene activities focusing on COVID-19 awareness.

Working with Southeast Asia

COVID-19 has underscored the value of our close and longstanding partnerships in Southeast Asia with our posts able to quickly pivot and support countries to respond. The department’s work across the year demonstrated the region’s critical importance to Australia’s efforts to promote a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

The ambition of Australia’s Strategic Partnership with Vietnam drove regular and deep engagement on a wide range of bilateral, regional and strategic issues. We supported the visit to Vietnam by the Prime Minister in August, during which an Australia–Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy was announced. We hosted the inaugural Vietnam–Australia Economic Ministers’ Meeting in Adelaide in November, which agreed to terms of reference for the strategy. The strategy aims to make Australia and Vietnam top 10 trading partners, double two-way investment and support economic recovery of both countries following COVID-19.

Australia’s deep ties with Singapore continued to strengthen. In March the department supported the annual Australia–Singapore leaders’ meeting, convened for the first time via video conference. Leaders concluded a treaty on military training and a digital economy agreement. The treaty will lead to the development and upgrading of military training facilities in Australia for the use of Australian and Singaporean forces. The digital economy agreement will lower costs and increase opportunities for Australian businesses.

We deepened engagement with Malaysia under our Strategic Partnership. This included supporting the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment to co-chair the 18th Joint Trade Committee Meeting in August, advancing bilateral trade and investment interests. We also supported the second annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Sydney in November, furthering cooperation in defence and security, trade and investment, and education. These meetings underscored the enduring strength of the Australia–Malaysia partnership and set an ambitious agenda for further cooperation into 2020.

In the lead-up to Brunei’s chairing of ASEAN in 2021, Australia and Brunei are working together to promote economic integration and prosperity in the region. The Foreign Minister’s successful visit to Brunei in February, supported by the department, will help drive that effort.

In the Philippines we continued Australia’s long-standing support for peace-building in Muslim Mindanao and for maritime security. We also worked with government and civil society partners to improve judicial responses to terrorism through our development partnership. Due to COVID-19, a virtual meeting replaced a scheduled visit to Australia by Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. in April.

The department led an increase in Australia’s work across the Mekong subregion. We supported closer engagement with Thailand following its elections in 2019, leading to Prime Ministers Morrison and Prayut agreeing to work towards an Australia–Thailand Strategic Partnership. The department also hosted inaugural senior officials’ talks with Cambodia, which included broad-ranging discussions on strategic, political, governance and development assistance issues.

We hosted constructive Human Rights Dialogues with Laos and Vietnam in August, and raised individual cases and key thematic issues. We continued to engage with senior members of the Myanmar government to advocate for improved human rights for minority groups, including the Rohingya, humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas and adherence to international humanitarian law. We expressed concern at the escalation of violence in 2020 in Rakhine and southern Chin states, which undermined work towards a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis. We continued to encourage Myanmar to engage constructively with international accountability mechanisms.

Working with South Asia

The department led the Australian delegation to the inaugural Strategic Maritime Dialogue with
Sri Lanka to advance shared interests in the Indian Ocean. Held in September alongside senior officials’ and trade and investment talks, it has further strengthened our relationship and our close cooperation to counter people smuggling and other transnational crime.

Our aid contribution to Afghanistan—Australia’s fourth largest bilateral development program—included assistance for the presidential elections, finalised in February. Australia also marked the 50th anniversary of its diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan. The department provided funding and assistance for a visit and performance at the Sydney Opera House by Afghanistan’s first female orchestra.

We supported the Foreign Minister’s visit to Bangladesh in September, the first Australian foreign minister to visit in more than 20 years. The Minister visited the Rohingya refugee camp to highlight Australia’s humanitarian assistance—notably food, education and protection support for women and girls—and met with the host community in Cox’s Bazar District to hear views on the impact of the crisis. The Foreign Minister attended the Third Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Ministerial Blue Economy Conference in Dhaka, announcing the establishment of the CSIRO–IORA Blue Carbon Hub.

Australia and Nepal celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations in 2020. The department facilitated a visit to Australia from Nepal’s Minister for Tourism Yogesh Kumar Bhattarai in January.

We expanded our engagement with Maldives by supporting the Maldivian Defence Minister’s visit to Australia in November, which generated a number of whole-of-government security-related initiatives.

Australia managed a complex period in our relationship with Pakistan, as we phased out our bilateral aid program and transitioned to regional and global development programs. We supported Pakistan’s progress in combating terrorism by completing critical items required by the Financial Action Task Force. We also held the first senior officials’ talks in four years in Islamabad. We responded to sudden onset humanitarian challenges in Balochistan and Azad Kashmir, providing food assistance, shelter and safe spaces for women.

Building regional collaboration

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is central to Australia’s Indo-Pacific agenda and during the year played an important role in promoting regional responses to COVID-19. The department led negotiations on the ambitious ASEAN–Australia Plan of Action to expand regional cooperation, which was adopted by the Foreign Minister and her ASEAN counterparts in August. We engaged ASEAN closely on COVID-19, including by convening the senior officials level ASEAN–Australia Forum in May, and a Special ASEAN–Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June, where the Foreign Minister announced $23 million in new initiatives with ASEAN to promote health security and economic recovery.

We helped strengthen the East Asia Summit (EAS) as the premier forum for leader-led discussion on strategic issues facing our region. We initiated a statement on cooperation to combat transnational crime, which was adopted by leaders at the Summit in Bangkok in November. This recognised the importance of countering terrorists’ use of the internet. Our plans to co-host an EAS cyber workshop with Singapore in early 2020 were disrupted by COVID-19, and we began work to reschedule the initiative.

Our support for the inaugural Australia–India–Japan–United States Quadrilateral (Quad) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in September helped advance cooperation on our complementary visions for the Indo-Pacific. We also participated in regular Quad senior officials’ consultations and activities. Through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with Japan and the United States, we coordinated engagement on maritime security and infrastructure.

To help galvanise responses to COVID-19, we engaged partners in new and existing groups. The Five Eyes group was a key forum for discussing the implications of the crisis, and meetings were arranged at ministerial and senior officials’ levels. The Secretary joined counterparts from India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Vietnam for regular Indo-Pacific coordination calls. The department supported an unprecedented level of virtual diplomacy between portfolio ministers and their regional counterparts, enabling progress on shared priorities despite COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Promoting women’s role in peace-building in our region

We are strengthening women’s roles in peacebuilding and peacekeeping across our region.

In November and December, Australia supported the UN Development Programme’s Bougainville Referendum Support Project—a multi-donor fund that contributed significantly to Women, Peace and Security efforts at this crucial juncture in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville’s history.

With the project’s support, women’s groups were active throughout the process, driving community discussions and action on safety and security, and developing polling day processes to allow women to vote freely. The project helped recruit women as awareness officers to ensure messaging reached a broader audience. On polling day, around 49 per cent of voters were women, and women’s groups participated as polling station officials and observers.

Through Pacific Women, Australia is partnering with the International Women’s Development Agency and the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation in Bougainville, to address family and sexual violence by promoting shared power and decisionmaking between women and men. The program has supported 800 community leaders throughout Bougainville to apply new knowledge and analytical skills to manage and implement community peacebuilding activities.

The Pacific Islands Forum, through its unique convening power and ability to mobilise coordinated regional responses, remains a central part of Australia’s Pacific engagement—including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Morrison joined other Forum leaders at the August meeting in Tuvalu in endorsing the Kainaki II Declaration, which called on all countries to take action to address the challenges of climate change.

Under the Canberra Fellowships Program, the department designed and delivered six visit programs involving 40 current and emerging leaders from 15 Indo-Pacific countries. These visits covered Pacific island education policy, defence and security cooperation, digital connectivity, and infrastructure.

In 2019–20 the department’s Australian Water Partnership program supported 12 Indo-Pacific countries through 56 projects and activities. This included developing a river basin management plan for the Ayerwaddy River in Myanmar—home to 37.7 million people—and striving for gender inclusion outcomes in Vietnam’s water utility twinning program.

Maritime security

As a major trading nation with a vast maritime jurisdiction, Australia has a vital interest in an open, stable and rules-based maritime domain throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Australia has a substantial interest in the stability of the South China Sea—a crucial international waterway—and the rules and norms that govern it. Our diplomatic engagement this year continued to promote adherence to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the context of COVID-19, we emphasised the importance of all parties refraining from destabilising activities so countries could devote full attention to addressing the pandemic.

In Southeast Asia, we worked to enhance resilience to maritime security threats that can undermine sovereignty and the capacity of countries to realise the economic potential of their maritime domains. We continued to facilitate practical maritime cooperation through regional bodies, including as the co-leads (with Vietnam and the EU) of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) maritime security work-stream. In February we co-chaired with Timor-Leste and Malaysia an ARF workshop on dispute resolution and the law of the sea in Dili, Timor-Leste. That same month, we co-led with India and Indonesia an East Asia Summit conference on maritime security in Chennai, India.

Contributing to regional and maritime security

The Office of the Pacific launched the Australia Pacific Security College in November as a critical part of the Step-up. The college focused on training Pacific officials in line with the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security. With the emergence of COVID-19, the college moved its scheduled course offerings, stakeholder outreach and advisory board meetings online. The Office of the Pacific established the interim Pacific Fusion Centre in August, which has been staffed by Australians and 20 secondees from 13 Pacific island countries so far. The centre published daily COVID-19 awareness videos, developed a map of regional border closures and disseminated a series of COVID-19-related analytical reports. Its website traffic increased 40 per cent between April and June. We supported maritime security in the Pacific by:

  • providing a maritime domain awareness tool and publishing analytical products on the Pacific Fusion website
  • supporting Pacific island countries to define their maritime boundaries
  • working with countries and partners in the region to enforce maritime rights, including fisheries.

The Indian Ocean region was another focus of our work. The department led negotiations on the Joint Maritime Declaration adopted by leaders at the Australia–India virtual summit in June. This commits our nations to support the rules-based maritime order in the region; work together to strengthen maritime domain awareness throughout the Indo-Pacific; and combat transnational challenges, such as people smuggling, arms and narcotics trafficking, climate change, terrorism, and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

Infrastructure investment

The Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) became operational on 1 July. As we respond to the challenges of the pandemic, AIFFP will continue to focus on high-quality, climate-resilient infrastructure that maximises local engagement, including local employment and business opportunities. AIFFP has a dedicated climate infrastructure window to advance the region’s energy transition and climate ambitions. The facility’s priorities are in energy, water, telecommunications and transport sectors, which are key areas in meeting the challenges of climate change.

The 5,500km Coral Sea Cable System (CS2) and Solomon Islands Domestic Network are examples of Australia stepping up in the Pacific, providing high-quality, secure infrastructure without leading to a heavy debt burden on Pacific island countries. With construction and installation now complete, both systems have been available for customers in PNG and Solomon Islands since early February.

Building on the Coral Sea cable experience, the Office of the Pacific—including through the AIFFP—is working with Papua New Guinea, the United States, Japan and New Zealand to deliver greater access to electricity for PNG businesses and households under the PNG Electrification Partnership. This is a key economic priority for Papua New Guinea and a number of AIFFP investments will support it.

The blue ribbon getting cut at the opening the Coral Sea Cable Project by Australia's High Commissioner, PNG's PM and ministers.
Australia’s High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Jon Philp, joins Prime Minister James Marape and ministers to open the Coral Sea Cable Project. Left to right: Prime Minister Marape, Jon Philp, Minister for State Enterprises, Sasindran Muthuvel, and Minister for Information and Communications Technology, Timothy Masiu [DFAT]

To advance the Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership (TIP), which supports high-quality infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific, the department worked with Export Finance Australia and counterparts in Japan and the United States to share information about project pipelines and identify opportunities for trilateral cooperation.

In November the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment joined ASEAN counterparts to launch the Rolling Pipeline of Potential ASEAN Infrastructure Projects. The pipeline will help ASEAN member states select infrastructure projects in strategic sectors such as energy, transportation, and information and communications technology. Our work on the pipeline will be complemented by other Australian-funded infrastructure initiatives such as the Southeast Asia Economic Governance and Infrastructure Facility that will provide technical assistance on infrastructure decision-making to support economic growth.

Responding to the threat posed by North Korea

The department supported the Foreign Minister to issue statements on 24 August and 1 November condemning North Korea’s repeated shorter-range ballistic missile launches since May, and calling on North Korea to cease provocations that risk instability on the Korean Peninsula.

Australia remained committed to implementing UN Security Council and Australian autonomous sanctions against North Korea until it takes clear steps towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation. We conducted regular advocacy to other states, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, calling on them to fully implement UN Security Council sanctions.

We supported the Department of Defence’s deployment of maritime patrol aircraft to Japan and a naval vessel to the region to monitor ships evading UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. We followed up with the states where vessels of concern were registered, and shared information with the United Nations for further investigation.

Building relationships through the New Colombo Plan

The New Colombo Plan (NCP) supports thousands of young Australians to study and undertake
internships in the Indo-Pacific. It helps expand institutional links and develop connections for a new generation of leaders. It is also growing cultural understanding and contributing to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

The New Colombo Plan delivers improved people-to-people, institutional and business links:

  • at least 10,000 Australian undergraduates supported to study in the Indo-Pacific each year, and
  • more high quality engagement with Australian universities, businesses, alumni and other stakeholders in the New Colombo Plan.

Partially on track

Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 12, PBS 2019–20 program 1.5 p. 33 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 programs 1.1 and 1.5

* Our assessments are informed by feedback from students, universities, the private sector and partner governments; analysis of our NCP and alumni databases; and surveys of participants

Figure 4: 2019–20 NCP Scholars  1.6% Indigenous, 56% Female, 33% Low socio-economic backgrounds, 26% Spoke a language other than English at home, 26% First in family to attend university, 27% regional / remote and last, 8% Living with disability

Our performance

In 2019–20 the department awarded 11,321 NCP scholarships and short-term grants for Australian undergraduates to study and have work-based experiences in 37 Indo-Pacific locations. This brings the total awards since 2014 to approximately 60,000. While we have achieved this measure in terms of awards announced, we rate our performance as ‘partially on track’ to reflect delays in student mobilisation due to COVID-19.

Returned student surveys reported that 99 per cent of NCP scholars and 94 per cent of short-term grant recipients believed they were better prepared to engage with the Indo-Pacific after their NCP experiences. Private sector partners confirmed the value of the program in delivering an Indo-Pacific literate and connected workforce by sponsoring 18 NCP scholarships in 2020 (up from eight in 2019), and streamlining graduate recruitment for NCP alumni. More than 320 Australian and regional private sector organisations offered internships to NCP students.

All NCP scholars and most mobility students returned to Australia due to COVID-19. We provided opportunities for them to continue their engagement by delivering a three-month series of weekly webinars which were supported by senior business and academic leaders.

We supported the ongoing connection of NCP alumni with the Indo-Pacific through more than 35 networking and development events—including online webinars—during the COVID-19 period.

We appointed 51 NCP Alumni Ambassadors from all universities and every state and territory—including two NCP Indigenous Ambassadors. They promoted the NCP and the value of engaging with the Indo-Pacific region on their campuses and in communities across Australia.

The NCP alumni LinkedIn group grew to 5,165 members during the year—up from 3,196 the previous year—reflecting a strong and active alumni cohort.

Feedback on the NCP from regional governments, the business sector and universities was positive. We received applications for projects to the value of approximately $97 million (against available funding of $23 million) for the 2021 NCP round which closed on 25 June. We improved program delivery and administration, including by working with the market to establish a strategically integrated delivery model with industry partners.

Advising and supporting our ministers

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

High level of satisfaction of ministers and key stakeholders with the quality and timeliness of advice, briefing and support provided by the department.

On Track

Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 11 and 13, PBS 2019–20 program 1.1 p. 28 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 1.1

* Our assessments are informed by consultation with portfolio ministers’ offices, the department’s internal divisional business reviews and regular feedback from our ministers and stakeholders

We assess our performance against this measure as ‘on track’, based on assessments from our internal reviews and feedback received, including during the pandemic. In response to COVID-19 we developed new and different ways to support ministers’ international engagement, including high-level virtual meetings with bilateral, regional and multilateral partners. This helped ensure Australia’s international objectives were advanced during the pandemic. We streamlined how we worked with ministers and their offices to provide timely and high-quality information on COVID-19 and its implications for Australian interests. At the peak of the consular response to COVID-19, the department deployed additional staff to the Foreign Minister’s office to help parliamentarians respond to constituents affected by the pandemic.

We supported ministers through a period of unprecedented Cabinet activity. Our overseas network provided comprehensive, accurate analysis and information on global developments on the pandemic, directly contributing to ministers’ engagement in whole-of-government action on Australian responses.

In the first half of the reporting period we supported 35 visits for our five portfolio ministers to 40 countries for a combined duration of 123 days; seven visits by the Prime Minister; and three by the Governor-General. Overall, we supported fewer high-level physical visits as travel was restricted.

Feedback on our performance from ministers’ offices was that the department was responsive and provided high-quality advice including for Cabinet processes. Updates from our Global Watch Office were well regarded, as was reporting from the overseas network. Ministers’ offices strongly agreed that the department provided high-quality support for overseas visits. Feedback on our support for correspondence from the public was less strong and we are continuing to strengthen the quality of our support for ministers in this important area of our work.

As COVID-19 delayed internal business review processes, we did not formally survey external stakeholders in 2019–20, but received positive informal feedback throughout the period, including from business.