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Revisiting Australia's oceans policy

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This post is part of the A maritime school of Australian strategy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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4 November 2013 12:15


This post is part of the A maritime school of Australian strategy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Dr Sam Bateman, a retired RAN Commodore, served on the National Oceans Advisory Group established to advise on Australia’s oceans policy. This post is part of a series arranged in conjunction with the Sea Power Centre.

Justin Jones and James Holmes point out in their recent posts that 'maritime' means far more than 'naval'. This requires appreciating the full range of national maritime interests, which are now well beyond those perceived by Mahan and Corbett, particularly the vastly larger areas of national maritime jurisdiction – in Australia’s case, nearly 13 million sq km of ocean where we have significant rights and duties.

Justin rightly notes that national maritime strategic thinking is a joint, whole-of-government, whole-of-nation idea. This implies a truly national approach rather than just thinking in purely military terms.

The Navy is not positioned to drive this school of thought, but it can do much to promote or facilitate national maritime strategic thinking. This in fact was a basic objective behind the establishment in the early 1990s of the RAN’s Maritime Studies Programme, the predecessor of the current Sea Power Centre.

Rather surprisingly, the recent Maritime School of Strategic Thought collection of papers from the Sea Power Centre mentioned by Justin makes no reference to oceans policy (although the contribution by Captain Jenny Daetz does mention the Oceans Policy Science Advisory Group set up to provide marine science input to the policy). With the notable exception of the opening paper by the Chief of Navy, most papers in the collection appear locked into military strategic thinking.

Australia’s Oceans Policy, released in 1998 and theoretically still on the table, was all about a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to managing national maritime interests. Fundamentally it was about promoting national maritime awareness. Australia’s Oceans Policy established an integrated approach to managing national maritime interests. It has much to say in support of maritime strategic thinking, noting, for example:

Oceans define Australia’s geography and are critical to our security, with our dependence on maritime trade and the maintenance of freedom of movement for all commercial shipping. Oceans link us with our trading partners, provide resources and wealth and offer a defence against possible aggression.

It also makes the significant strategic point that Australia might assume a leadership role in helping to manage the oceans around Australia:

Australia should provide leadership regionally and internationally in the management of our oceans, recognising the possibility that national activities may have effects on the marine jurisdictions of neighbouring countries.

This includes ensuring good order in these oceans. The policy also stresses the positive role that maritime issues should play in our regional relations:

Oceans affairs are rightly a central part of our broader political and strategic relations in the regions in which our neighbours have extensive maritime interests, including exclusive economic zones. They also have an urgent need to build their capacity to manage these areas.

The goals of Australia’s Oceans Policy remain valid although the policy itself is now only about preserving and protecting the marine environment and conserving its living resources. Its first goal ‘to exercise and protect Australia’s rights and jurisdiction over offshore areas, including offshore resources’ establishes the fundamental importance of protecting Australia’s sovereignty and sovereign rights at sea. Its goal ‘to promote public awareness and understanding’ of the oceans relates to promoting national maritime strategic thinking.

Anthony Bergin and I revisited oceans policy and Australia’s strategic, economic, political and environmental interests in the oceans in our Sea Change: Advancing Australia’s Ocean Interests report in 2009 for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The report includes a chapter on 'The Oceans and Maritime Security' where we point out that ‘for Australia, almost everything to do with the oceans has a strategic dimension'.

We made several suggestions relevant to the promotion of national maritime strategic thinking. To reflect a true whole-of-government approach, we recommended the establishment of an Office of Oceans and Maritime Affairs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This would properly reflect the importance of the oceans to Australia, including our security, and the need for strong inter-agency coordination. This central policy coordination of oceans affairs occurs in other countries, including in France, Japan and South Korea.

A basic problem is that there are no votes in the issue and only small, specific maritime interests in certain electorates around the country (eg. naval shipbuilding in South Australia and fishing in areas along the east coast).

To get more political focus on maritime issues, a Federal Parliamentary Maritime Group might be established similar to the UK’s Associate Parliamentary Maritime Group. This is an all-party group of both houses of parliament and British members of the European Parliament, along with representatives of companies and professional organisations involved in maritime issues. It provides a forum for the exchange of views between parliament and those engaged in pursuing the nation's maritime interests. A similar group in Australia would help promote national maritime strategic thinking.

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, is ‘on the ball’ in his opening contribution to the Sea Power Centre’s recent collection of papers when he says that a maritime school of strategic thought is required that is rooted in the geostrategic reality of our national situation and based on a clear appreciation of our geographic, economic and diplomatic situation. Revisiting the concept of national oceans policy would help get this ball rolling.

Photo by Flickr user alexkess.

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