- Australia has a significant trading and investment relationship with the African continent worth tens of billions of dollars and is therefore a major contributor to Africa’s economic progress.
- The growing economic ties have been followed by small but growing defence and security cooperation, which has the potential to expand further in the years ahead.
While Africa is important to Australia and vice versa, and the potential for wider defence and security cooperation is indeed possible, it is in the immediate and foreseeable future unlikely to advance further than existing small scale training and capacity building exchanges as Australia’s strategic focus and military resources are increasingly concentrated towards the northern Indian Ocean region and Southeast Asia.
There are great opportunities in the Australia-Africa relationship. We already have strong and diverse people-to-people links, with more than half a million Australians of African heritage calling Australia home. And it is time for us to turbo-charge these links – to push the boundaries in our increasingly connected world.
Evolving Australia-Africa Ties
In September, I once again welcomed African Ministers and senior officials to Perth for Africa Down Under – the centrepiece of Australia-Africa Week in my hometown. In its 17th year, the conference is a yearly reminder of our economic ties; in resources and energy, agribusiness, premium food and technology-based activities.
Africa is on the cusp of a boom – with four of the fastest growing economies last year located in Africa. It is also a major overseas market for our mining services. In 2018, the Australia-Africa Minerals and Energy Group estimated that around 40% of Australian overseas mining projects were in Africa. Demographic changes mean that these interests will continue, with population growth projected to double by 2050, including an expanding urban middle class that will create demand for our goods and services.
Representing about a fifth of the earth’s total landmass, Africa is estimated to have some 30% of the world’s mineral, oil and gas reserves. The potential for socio-economic development is considerable but that will only happen if the countries with these resources have access to foreign capital and partner with companies who are committed to ensuring sovereign benefit.
As a nation that relies on foreign capital, Australia understands that very well. One such opportunity lies in the development of the critical minerals and rare earths sectors. These elements are essential for a wide range of high-tech products such as mobile phones, computers and rechargeable batteries as well as a wide range of military technologies.
Of the 35 minerals identified in the US Critical Minerals List Africa has substantial deposits of 11. These resources are essential for the economic and industrial development of the world’s major economies. Australia’s Critical Minerals Strategy that was released in March, not only provides a plan for our nation’s critical minerals market but aims to position Australia as a world leader in the exploration, extraction, production and processing of critical minerals.
Expanding Defence Cooperation
As the Federal Minister for Defence I am heartened to see the valuable work the Australian Defence Force is doing to build the capacity of Africa’s 54 countries so they can address security challenges. Allow me to explain.
In 2012, Australia established a Defence Attaché in Africa for the first time to facilitate our Defence engagement. Located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the position is accredited to the African Union, as well as numerous African countries.
The ADF also has a proud history of contributing to peace operations on the African continent. Our service men and women have deployed to UN missions in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Western Sahara and Namibia. Today, the ADF has up to 25 personnel serving with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), one we have supported for almost 15 years. Our contribution also includes peacekeeping capabilities and this month an ADF training team is travelling to Kenya to deliver a month-long UN-certified peacekeeping course to 30 East African military Officers who are preparing to deploy as peacekeepers to African conflict areas.
We also want to build people-to-people links in our defence forces. This is achieved through hosting African students down under, so they can attend professional military education courses, including the UN Military Observer, Maritime Law and Basic Intelligence Analysis training courses. The ADF also proudly hosts mid-ranking officers at our Command and Staff College, and senior officers on our Defence and Strategic Studies Course. I am delighted that next year, for the first time, Australia will host an Ethiopian officer at the Australian Command and Staff College. Around 20 years ago I had the privilege of working as a staff member at the college, an opportunity that gave me lifelong friends.
Critical to our defence relationship with Africa is the Royal Australian Navy’s contribution to the Combined Maritime Forces. Led by the United States, this 33-nation partnership has focused on countering terrorism, drug smuggling and preventing piracy off the north-east coast of Africa since 1990.
As an Indian Ocean Rim nation, we have a clear strategic interest in a peaceful and prosperous Indian Ocean, underpinned by a stable rules-based maritime order where international norms are respected and adhered to.
The future of our relationship with Africa is only defined by the limitation of our imagination and our boldness and ability to work together. Geography and history is no longer a limitation, instead opportunities for new partnerships, based on mutual respect and also technological innovation.