Recent Australia’s Regional Overtures in the Indian Ocean Region

By – Artyom Garin;

In the present times, there have been clear attempts by Australia to broaden the scope of its regional policies, including the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It brings benefits to Canberra, giving it greater influence in the Indo-Pacific. However, Australia may face an overstretch, as every power has its own limits. 

The importance of the Indian Ocean for Australia

Exacerbating further its geo-strategic calculus, Australia borders the Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic Oceans. Over the years, Canberra has focused and experienced more of its strategies in the Pacific. The IOR has received less attention in Australia’s foreign policy, and the situation has begun to change quite recently. Commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy has contributed to this. In 2013, Australia became the first state to officially declare its belonging to the region. References to this were made in the Defence White Paper. In fact, the Indo-Pacific concept has become a quintessence of political, economic cooperation and, at the same time, is linked to the growing China’s influence both regionally and globally.

Australia’s interest in the IOR is also strengthened by a number of quantitative indicators. These include possessing one of the longest coastlines among Indo-Pacific countries. State of Western Australia, whose shores belong to the Indian Ocean, is the country’s gateway to the region.

However, Australia has island territories in the IOR, whose geostrategic importance is growing as China and the United States (US) have become increasingly competitive in the region. Given the unique position between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (2,700 km. from Perth) and Christmas Island (2,600 km. from Perth) have a special place in Australia’s defence policy. Nowadays, there are airfields with the P8-A Poseidon patrol aircrafts and wharfs. Their unique geographical location is a useful asset for Australia in view of China’s increased activities in the Indo-Pacific. The territories in the IOR also provides Australian forces with rapid access to the region.

‘Territorial Overstretch’ as a challenge for Australia’s Politics in the IOR

The expansion of Australia’s influence in the IOR has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the interplay between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean makes the scope of Canberra’s foreign policy more extensive, giving Australia a greater status and incentive to build relationships with other powers in the region. On the other hand, each power has its limits.

Australia holds a strong  position on a number of geo-economic and strategic indicators: 1st in the world in terms of gold, iron ore, uranium, lead and other mineral resources, 13th in terms of nominal GDP (2020), 13th highest level of military spending in 2018, and fifth highest among countries in Asia and South Pacific. It also has experience in governing and ensuring stability over the vast expanse of Oceania. In fact, the South Pacific is Canberra’s area of influence. Australia accounts for approximately 94.5 per cent of the South Pacific’s GDP, nearly 98 per cent of defence and security expenditures, and roughly 60 per cent of total official development assistance (ODA), making it the leader of external assistance.

Over the years, Australia has taken increasingly ambitious initiatives to expand its influence over the three oceans. As Rumley, Doyle, and Chaturvedi rightly pointed out in 2012, Australia may face a real ‘territorial overstretch’ that can lead to material difficulties and even shortages of regional specialists. This was confirmed in 2020-2021, when the Australian government contributed A$575 billion (US$397.4 billion) for the next 10 years to modernize the Armed Forces and Military-Industrial Complex (MIC). According to the Australian Prime Minister, the country should be better prepared in case a ‘high-intensity conflict’ (in fact ‘war-like’) situation arises. Consecutively, there have been reports of plans to upgrade defence infrastructure in the Northern Territory of Australia (where at least three military bases are located), Oceania and the IOR.

In the autumn of 2021, the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom announced a deepening of defence and technology cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. As an outcome, a trilateral security partnership called AUKUS was signed. Under this agreement, the US will transfer nuclear submarine technology to Australia. Canberra may now have submarines with higher speeds, longer underwater exposure, greater geographic range, and even nuclear weapons. This poses a completely different and broader defence challenge to Australia. Undoubtedly, Australia’s rearmament was spurred by the rapid pace of military construction by China. The South China Sea or Indian Ocean waters could be the main theatre of operations for the new Australian submarines. But is Australia ready for such a role? Is it ready to be identified as a party to the conflict with China, its main trading partner today, and expecting submarines by 2040-2060? The world is changing rapidly, so by the time Canberra possesses its submarines, it may be necessary to operate in a very different environment.

In an era of pandemics and changes, the allocation of resources to other fields may be more relevant. The Indo-Pacific countries will focus on recovering from the effects of COVID-19 next years. Multibillion-dollar defence spending will allow Australia to reach a new level in terms of military power, but these resources may be useful for strengthening the healthcare, economic sustainability, training specialists in the field of Indo-Pacific, and assistance to small developing island states. Against the background of strained relations with Beijing, Canberra may face difficulties in the field of trade, which will impact its well-being and expenditures.

Australia’s Future Perspectives and Challenges in Indo-Pacific 

Australia could go a different way and maximize its benefits by building a subregional security system in a more limited space, Oceania. Its defence line is covering almost all of Melanesia (Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands). The fifth continent has dominated the ocean subregion over the past century. However, Canberra is now losing its influence in the South Pacific. This is confirmed by recent events in the Solomon Islands. At the end of December, China expressed readiness to send police advisory group to the small island developing state. The authorities of the Solomon Islands took this step after the riots that took place in Honiara and was connected with the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC.

Given the growing influence of Beijing, Canberra will increase strategic cooperation with other powers of the Indo-Pacific, for example, with India. Both countries have a number of similar challenges in traditional zones of influence. This leads to the development of humanitarian and defence cooperation. Nevertheless, Australia is more interested in the IOR than India in Oceania.

The IOR has great geostrategic significance. As is known, the Indian Ocean accounts for an approximate 80% of the global maritime oil trade. The South Pacific, in turn, is less affected by international trade. In addition, this subregion is too far from the potential theatre of military operations in the Indo-Pacific. Anyway, New Delhi’s support may be needed in Canberra, which is interested in containing Beijing in the region. India is able to support Australia in strengthening its position in the IOR. Canberra, for its part, can help New Delhi to take the first steps towards establishing relations with the Pacific Islands.

The increased rivalry between Indo-Pacific powers may lead to infrastructural competition in the region and the unification of Quad countries’ efforts to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For example, Australia implements its multibillion-dollar Pacific Step-Up aimed at developing relations with Oceania in the field of economy, security, and external AID. Japan has an Expanded Partnership on Quality Infrastructure (EPQI), India in this case can offer Project Mausam, Project Sagarmala (SAGAR), and the USA has already established Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network (ITAN). However, the Quad countries had been left behind in terms of BRI. The Chinese initiative already includes almost 140 countries. The value of BRI projects exceeded US$4 trillion in 2020.

Conclusion

Australia is trying to broaden the scope of its foreign policy by projecting its national interests into the larger IOR spaces. In many ways, the success of this venture will depend on India, which Canberra sees as the basis for a sustainable Indo-Pacific strategy. Nevertheless, Australia faces some challenges in implementing its plans. Firstly, increased foreign policy outreach distracts it from the affairs in Oceania. Secondly, the resources of each power are limited, so Canberra will have to correctly prioritize defense, diplomacy, and determine the scope of its foreign policy. Despite the high defense costs, Australia will not be able to compete with China. Probably, this financing could be more effective in other areas. Finally, the situation may change in the domestic political dimension, including after the upcoming elections in Australia.

Artyom Garin is a Research Assistant of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is interested in multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in Australia-China relations. His research interests also include defence and aid policies of Australia, as well as politics and history of the Pacific Island countries.

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