Time to reset Australia’s maritime approach to the Indian Ocean?

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Dr David Brewster of the National Security College at ANU has highlighted an important conundrum for Australian policymakers as we seek to balance and maintain concurrent Australian presence between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, stretching the “Two Ocean” policy to its limits.

Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of the US signalled a major shift in the direction of the nation’s strategic policy that continues to influence Australia’s doctrine to this day.

Domestic political backlash and a changing geostrategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the “Defence of Australia”. 

While Australia’s participation in the Vietnam conflict further enhanced the nation’s position as an integral US ally, mounting domestic political dissatisfaction, the new Whitlam government and the mounting cost of Australia’s involvement in the conflict, saw the nation’s post-Second World War strategic reality and doctrine begin to shift away from regional intervention.

This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the sea-air gap as a strategic “buffer zone” for Australia.

This buffer zone was responsible for enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identifies: “Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others.” 

The sea-air gap encompasses what has long been defined as Australia’s primary “sphere of primary strategic interests” – the narrow maritime sea lines of communication, vast areas of open ocean and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass through south-east Asia.

These important corridors served as the nation’s strategic, economic and political links to the broader region, through what would eventually become known as the Indo-Pacific. 

As the doctrine shifted, the introduction of the Two Ocean policy in 1987 initiated a period of unprecedented infrastructure and force structure recapitalisation and redeployment of the Royal Australian Navy – with the newly redeveloped Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling becoming the home of the Navy’s Collins Class submarines and an increasing number of surface warships. 

However, the rapidly evolving geostrategic situation and bubbling arms race is presenting Australia with a number of challenges for the Royal Australian Navy despite the government’s program of modernisation and recapitalisation, raising important questions about the validity of the Two Ocean policy in a period of geostrategic competition transforming the Indo-Pacific. 

This has recently been identified by Dr David Brewster of the National Security College at ANU, who believes Australia is approaching the potential of the Indian Ocean and broader Indo-Pacific with a “glass half-full” approach. 

Defining the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean

Defining the strategic environment Australia finds itself in is the key focus for Dr Brewster, with many of his initial concerns regarding the way in which the nation currently identifies the Indian Ocean, stating: “Australia’s definition of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ currently includes much of the Pacific Ocean as well as the eastern Indian Ocean, but excludes the western Indian Ocean.

“This is no longer a sensible or useful way of defining our region. Australian policymakers need to include the island states of the western Indian Ocean in our Indo-Pacific strategy, even if only in a fuzzy way.”

Further compounding issues, the growing complexities of the geostrategic, economic and political competition sweeping throughout the Indo-Pacific has prompted the development of a number of competing centres of strategic gravity.

Each with individual tactical and strategic factors directly influencing the force structure and force posture to enable the Navy to adequately meet the objectives identified by government. 

Expanding on this, Dr Brewster said, “The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper defined the Indo-Pacific as ‘the region ranging from the eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean connected by Southeast Asia, including India, North Asia and the United States.’

“This definition was adopted for good reasons, at least at the time. It largely aligned with US perspectives. It also prioritised Australia’s focus on India and its eastern neighbours, while impliedly reducing Australia’s strategic focus on the Middle East. For example, it provided a conceptual underpinning for the gradual reduction of naval resources committed in the Persian Gulf/western Indian Ocean and their reallocation closer to home.”

Further compounding the tactical and strategic challenges presented by these competing centres of strategic gravity is the need for a clearly defined role and objective for the Royal Australian Navy in the 21st century.

This overreach directly challenging the effectiveness of the Cold War-era Two Ocean policy, necessitating a dramatically different response to developing force structure and force posture for the Royal Australian Navy, particularly as a result of Australia’s utter and debilitating dependence upon maritime trade and security. 

Dr Brewster recognises this, stating, “A strategy that involved dividing the Indian Ocean in two was never going to work in the long term. There is no sense in slicing in half the key sea lines of communication that run from the Persian Gulf across the Indian Ocean. Strategic competition with China is now happening in the western half of the Indian Ocean just as much as the east.”

Expanding the focus and balancing competing needs

It is clear based on Australia’s geographic location and its dependence on maritime trade and security that it needs to fully embrace its position as an Indian Ocean power – doing so requires greater emphasis on force structure and capability development in the region.

This is particularly relevant as the rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets operating in the region, namely by Russia and China, continue to rise.

Additionally, the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned emerging peer competitors serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.

Each of these factors serves to place greater operational pressure on the limited number of existing platforms like the Anzac Class frigates, Hobart and eventually Hunter Class vessels – and timely delays for the arrival of key power projection assets like the Canberra Class based on their permanent basing on the East Coast. 

Dr Brewster asks an important and pertinent question for Australian consideration, “Why does this matter for us? Australia’s concerns regarding China’s influence operations in the Pacific islands have diverted our attention from similar contests that are occurring among Indian Ocean island states.

“We have seen this in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, with similar contests beginning to occur in Madagascar, Seychelles and, perhaps, soon Comoros. Like the Pacific, these contests for influence underpin Beijing’s efforts to gain control resources (marine, energy, mineral and agricultural) and access to military facilities.

“It is important to show support for our key Indian Ocean strategic partners, the United States, India, France and Japan, in their efforts to help the island states mitigate undue influence and economic coercion, just as we will need their support in the Pacific and elsewhere.”

Your thoughts

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the development of a holistic national security strategy and the role of a minister for national security to co-ordinate the nation’s response to mounting pressure from nation-state and asymmetric challenges in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Time to reset Australia’s maritime approach to the Indian Ocean?

Last Updated: 21 February 2020

Published: 21 February 2020

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