FEATURE | Australia can no longer just muddle through in the Indian Ocean

Photo: Wikipedia / Murray Foubister
Photo: Wikipedia / Murray Foubister – Indian Ocean sunset near Cervantes, WA

Australia is an important Indian Ocean power and it needs to start acting like one. It’s clear that the region has a much more multipolar future than ever before, which will require Australia to take a much more active role. In fact, Australia needs a comprehensive strategy to protect its interests and properly pursue opportunities in the region.

Australia has big stakes in the Indian Ocean. We have by far the longest coastline and by far the largest area of maritime jurisdiction of any country in the region. In one way or another, Australia relies on the Indian Ocean for much of its wealth. In 2016–17, sales of Western Australia’s mineral and petroleum industry alone totalled some $105 billion; in aggregate, around 42 per cent of Australia’s goods exports by value came from Western Australia. A very large proportion of our maritime trade, both exports and imports, crosses the Indian Ocean.

But despite the magnitude of its economic and strategic interests, Australia tends to see itself as an Indian Ocean country only in a secondary sense – literally, the Indian Ocean is Australia’s second sea. We’ve long seen ourselves as principally a Pacific Ocean state, reflecting our history and demography. Indeed, most Australians have probably only seen the Indian Ocean out of the window of a plane, en route to a holiday in Bali or Europe.

Over the past 50 years, Australia has developed sophisticated and successful national strategies for the Asia–Pacific region, actively engaging on economics and security issues and supporting the building of regional norms and institutions. This engagement is the basis for our current prosperity. A comprehensive strategic, security and economic strategy for the Indian Ocean is now an imperative in light of the changes we’re seeing in the region.

For more than a century, our engagement with the Indian Ocean has taken place in the context of the military predominance of Australia’s great-power allies. This has benefited Australia in many ways, but this security blanket also meant that we paid only limited attention to the region. But after several decades of US military predominance, the Indian Ocean is now becoming a contested strategic space.

India is emerging as a major power, with aspirations to play a leading role in the Indian Ocean. China’s Belt and Road Initiative also has the potential to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the region. China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean is growing fast and will continue to grow.

This means that the current US military dominance in the region could be a lot more transient than it might seem. The US Congress may not be indefinitely willing to spend billions protecting the oil being shipped to China. A significant reduction in the US defence commitment in the Persian Gulf, for example, whether under President Donald Trump or one of his successors, could easily create a power vacuum that others will race to fill. This could happen much faster than we expect and could be very damaging for the stability of the region.

In the 1970s, the surprise withdrawal of the Royal Navy from “east of Suez” created a vacuum that was soon filled by the United States. But don’t expect such an easy power transition in future.

The Indian Ocean is also a place of significant opportunities. Over the past 50 years, Australia has focused on economic integration with East Asia. But a string of countries on the South Asian littoral, led by India, are now experiencing high and potentially sustained growth. Other countries in the Middle East and East Africa also have the long-term potential to emerge as major economies. Their progress is far from assured and they’re subject to many risks, but there’s potential for some of them to stabilise and experience sustained “breakout” growth. Australia needs to be ready for that.

And, not least, the Indian Ocean is also a region for opportunities in the “blue economy” where Australia can become a leading provider of services and marine science. Perth is arguably already the region’s leading science and knowledge hub. We need to leverage and expand on the marine and climate science initiatives based in Western Australia for the benefit of the region and Australia.

It’s no longer “business as usual” in the Indian Ocean. We can no longer afford to just muddle through. Priorities remain unprioritised, potential threats might not be properly planned for, and many opportunities are unpursued. Our regional objectives remain unclear. Our economic engagement with some of the world’s fastest growing economies languishes. There are compelling reasons why Australia must pursue a clearer and more coherent approach towards the Indian Ocean as part of an integrated Indo-Pacific strategy.

Article reprinted with permission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s analysis and commentary site The Strategist.