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The threats and opportunities drawing Australia to the Indian Ocean

31 May 24 | Jennifer Parker & Grant Wyeth

While the Government’s recent National Defence Strategy notes the many opportunities available to Australia in the Indian Ocean, security risks to Australia’s west are likely the main driver of Defence’s sharpened focus on the region, Jennifer Parker and Grant Wyeth write.

Traditionally, Australian foreign policy has focused on the Pacific Ocean as its primary source of opportunity and threat. This is intuitive, considering our population is overwhelmingly on the east coast, and it reflects both the economic boom that has transformed Northeast Asia in recent decades and Australia’s historical experience resisting Japan in the Pacific during World War II.

But Australia is widening its vision – as it must. This is the theme of a new paper that outlines pathways for strengthening Australia’s Indian Ocean engagement.

Consolidated in the recently released National Defence Strategy (NDS), Australia’s designated ‘immediate region’ now includes the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Northeast Indian Ocean. This is an enormous area to prioritise for a middle power of limited resources.

Casting its eyes westward, Australia has made India the centre of its Indian Ocean engagement. Building habits of trust and cooperation with the emerging great power has been seen as imperative to prepare for a world where India will play a far greater role. And of course, India’s massive population and growing market power present undeniably attractive opportunities for Australia.

This has also meant seeing India as a vital partner in national defence. As China has increased its military reach in the Indian Ocean, with a base in Djibouti and heavy investment in the region’s ports, India and Australia are coming to see themselves as the ocean’s natural custodians, with closely aligned interests.

Australia’s NDS endorses this growing alignment – and, implicitly, India’s vision of itself as the primary security provider for the Indian Ocean region – when it says that Australia “will continue to support India’s key role in the region,” and describes India as a “a top-tier security partner.”

This is the culmination of a relationship between India and Australia that has rapidly evolved in recent years, driven by a desire to move beyond tokenistic gestures and achieve complex, practical defence cooperation. From joint maritime patrol operations in April 2022 to the first ever visit of an Indian submarine to Australia in September 2023, this collaboration has been strengthening over time.

Again, the NDS approves.

It says Defence “aims to achieve a deeper level of defence cooperation with India through ‘practical multilateral and bilateral’ cooperation, whilst promoting increasing connectivity across both defence industry and information sharing.”

This willingness to forge practical defence relationships in the Indian Ocean also extends to the northeast, with the NDS emphasising the need to “regularise” the Australian Defence Force’s presence in countries along Australia’s key maritime trade routes, including Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

The strategy’s emphasis on the Indian Ocean is couched in terms of increased “competition for access and influence” across the region. It acknowledges attempts to dominate sea lanes and strategic ports, and the ever-present danger of tension and miscommunication between India and Pakistan. China’s border incursions into India were also mentioned.

It’s evident then that while the NDS sees the Indian Ocean region as fertile ground for collaboration, it also hosts potential risks for Australia’s maritime security. It’s possible that this perceived vulnerability is the primary driver of the strategy’s strong sentiment towards the region, and – perhaps unlike previous strategic documents – that it may well be followed by action.

However, vulnerability on Australia’s western flank shouldn’t be understood as only resulting from geostrategic competition. The NDS also notes the non-traditional maritime threats present in the region. Poverty and disadvantage within Indian Ocean states could give rise to social tension and instability, which can spill over into sea lines of communication in the form of piracy and irregular migration. The effects of climate change further complicate these human security risks.

The Australian Navy already engages purposefully with Sri Lanka on issues of irregular migration, with Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar and refugee camps in Bangladesh their most pressing concern. Last year was the deadliest year at sea in almost a decade, as Rohingya refugees attempted maritime voyages towards Southeast Asia. In March 2023, dozens drowned when their vessel capsized off the west coast of Aceh in Indonesia.

In the coming decades, power will continue to shift, both to and within the Indo-Pacific. As human security issues worsen and China expands its presence in East Africa and the western Indian Ocean islands, Australia will need to reconceptualise where its areas of interests lie, even within the Indian Ocean region. While Australia’s current focus is on the northeast Indian Ocean, it should view the Indian Ocean as a single strategic theatre. It must make the whole region a priority, and lay the groundwork now by building relationships throughout the Indian Ocean.

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