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Halfway, right: Australia’s approach to the Indian Ocean

The dividing line that splits the Indian Ocean in two is a pragmatic acknowledgement of Australia’s resources and strategy.

Weligama, southern Sri Lanka (Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images)
Weligama, southern Sri Lanka (Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 17 Jun 2024 

The waters of the Indian Ocean lap on the shores of Western Australia all the way across to Africa. But how far Australia’s defence and foreign policy interests extend into this vast watery expanse is a live debate. The “Indo-Pacific”, at least as Australia conceives this area, drives a cartographic division, chopping the Indian Ocean in two east and west. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper limits Australia’s Indo-Pacific definition in this region to the “eastern Indian Ocean.” More recently, the 2024 National Defence Strategy finds that the “Northeast Indian Ocean is central to Australia’s security.”

Prudent and pragmatic reasons make this geographic restraint essential.

Central to the 2024 National Defence Strategy is a “strategy of denial,” which requires “credible [Australian Defence Force] capabilities” to deter conflict, prevent forceful coercion of Australia, support regional security and prosperity and maintain a “favourable regional strategic balance.” Put simply, Australia cannot pursue this lofty ambition of denial across the vast Indian Ocean seascape, as well as the Pacific and maritime Southeast Asia simultaneously. The entire Indian Ocean is simply too large for a successful strategy of denial. This geographic scope is enacted as an acknowledgement of Australia’s limitations.

Dividing the Indian Ocean in this manner no doubt frustrates and disheartens those countries west of the chop line. During recent consultations in South Africa on maritime security with officials and experts, I felt a palpable sense of embitterment and alienation at Australia’s Indian Ocean geographic delimitation. These dividing lines necessarily create disaffection and irritation – which is difficult for Australian officials to ameliorate.

Even if the Indian Ocean is divided in Canberra’s eye, the Western portion is by no means abandoned.

And this approach has also frustrated analysts. Dividing the Indian Ocean in two is “no longer a sensible or useful way of defining our region,” according to scholar David Brewster. Likewise, analyst Tushar Joshi writes that Australia must update its “strategic outlook to encompass the wider [Indian Ocean] region … to address evolving geopolitical challenges.”

Indeed, the 2024 NDS does not similarly chop the Pacific Ocean in two, so why the Indian Ocean?

While the Indian Ocean is indeed one interconnected strategic system in which traditional and non-traditional threats roam and flourish, prioritising defence and diplomatic efforts on Australia’s approaches and our immediate region is reasonable and shrewd. Even if the Indian Ocean is divided in Canberra’s eye, the western portion is by no means abandoned. Australia retains a wide diplomatic presence across these island, littoral and hinterland states as well as strong defence cooperation. A lower priority does not equal abandonment or neglect.

For example, in February 2024 Australia hosted the 7th Indian Ocean Conference, demonstrating a commitment to the entire ocean region. Australia continues to play a proactive role in the Indian Ocean Rim Association and Australian government departments and agencies coordinate a wide range of ocean-wide activities and initiatives, from law of the sea workshops to marine and coastal resilience coordination.

Moreover, the approach adopted by Australia reflects the modern era, rather than ambitions of the past. Could or should Australia mount credible military force in the in the Persian Gulf, for example, or off Africa’s east coast?

Assessing that Australia no longer has a 10-year window of strategic warning time for conflict, the government has directed that the ADF is now required to defend Australia, deter attack of Australia’s northern approaches, protect our economic connection, contribute to Indo-Pacific collective security and contribute to rules-based order maintenance.

This strategy dispenses with a largely expeditionary force of previous decades.

Researcher and former diplomat Kate O’Shaughnessy seems to agree with the divided Indian Ocean, writing in 2023 that “in fiscally tightened times, no one would begrudge Australia’s carefully weighed decision to focus on the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and the northeast Indian Ocean.”

Australia’s prioritisation of the eastern over the western Indian Ocean is a prudent, decision the reflects Australia’s strengths, capabilities and requirements.

Perhaps the better debate to be had is how far across the southeastern Pacific Australia’s national interests lie.

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