Strengthening Australia’s Engagement in the Indian Ocean

Recent Features

Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania | South Asia

Strengthening Australia’s Engagement in the Indian Ocean

Australia must work a little harder to fully integrate itself as a member of the Indian Ocean community. 

Strengthening Australia’s Engagement in the Indian Ocean
Credit: Depositphotos

In recent Australian government policy documents – like the National Defense Strategy published last week – there has been a reframing of how Australia understands its “immediate region.” While the Pacific and Southeast Asia have traditionally been considered Australia’s priorities, there is now the addition of the “Northeast Indian Ocean” to this designation. 

This is due to Australia’s enthusiastic embrace of the Indo-Pacific construct and its often-overlooked status as the country with the largest Indian Ocean coastline. But it also stems from the enormous opportunities and geopolitical calculations presented by India’s rise, in and of itself, and in relation to China’s increasing Indian Ocean reach. Alongside India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives are all also countries that are increasingly important for Australia’s security and prosperity. 

As outlined in a new paper published by Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defense Dialogue (AP4D), Australia’s interests lie in a stable and prosperous Indian Ocean region. This means a region where people can trade freely, mutually beneficial rules of engagement are endorsed and respected, and countries are able to pursue their development and prosperity without interference and subjugation from outside forces. 

Australia therefore has a direct interest in managing geopolitical competition in the region. Canberra wants a strong relationship with New Delhi and is supportive of India’s central role as a security provider in the Indian Ocean region, seeing this as necessary to establishing a balance of power that is favorable to Australia’s interests. 

Given that stability is the primary concern for Australia, it also has an interest in supporting conditions that enhance stability. Canberra believes that democratic states are more stable, produce greater human flourishing, and are more rule-abiding by nature, yet several states in the region are weakening in their commitments to democracy.

This presents difficulties for Australia’s engagement in the region, especially with social tensions from South Asia creating conflict within diaspora communities in Australia. It is a delicate balance to maintain a commitment to the rule of law and the protection of rights and freedoms while seeking to build substantive and cooperative relationships with governments that may not hold the same commitments. There is no perfect answer here, but so far Australia is managing these conditions reasonably well. 

Central to maintaining this balance is understanding where Australia’s expertise and capabilities can be useful. Aside from India, other South Asian states lack the maritime reach to defend their own interests – which includes being able to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, irregular migration, people smuggling, and transnational crime. As a responsible neighbor, Australia has a profound interest in helping these states reach further out into their own oceanic areas to tackle these concerns.

Often it is the small or even informal projects and relationships that can yield the best success. Given the huge diversity of interests and perspectives within the region, large structures that seek to do too much are often ineffective. To enhance Australia’s presence in the Northeast Indian Ocean may require patience and long-term vision to build trust and cooperation on an issue-by-issue basis. This requires not only diplomatic nous in a region of great cultural diversity, but an understanding of the concerns and priorities of regional partners. It also requires demonstrating that Canberra is not solely focused on New Delhi.

Collaboration within South Asia can often be impeded by the region’s political history. Countries may be wary of what they perceive as overbearing and hegemonic behavior from India. But the region’s collective problems cannot be solved without the support and active involvement of its biggest player. Collaborative projects that involve outside guarantors can help address this challenge, such as the role Japan has played in major connectivity projects, for example. These conditions present Australia with the opportunity to also be considered a trusted partner and good faith broker within the region.

As an Indian Ocean state, Australia’s interests are intimately tied to not only the major events of the region, but to the daily lives of the region’s people. Poverty and disadvantage within various part of the region can give rise to social tension and instability, which can spill over to sea lines of communication in the form of piracy and irregular migration. Australia has duties as a responsible global citizen to help address issues of poverty and disadvantage, contributing to Australia’s interests in a more stable and secure region. 

Australia may deem the Northeast Indian Ocean to be part of its “immediate region,” but its northwest coast houses only a tiny fraction of Australia’s population and lacks the requisite infrastructure to project considerable power and influence. This means there are a lack of symmetries and habits of cooperation that naturally develop between substantial coastal communities that face and interact with each other. It also means that Australia must work a little harder to fully integrate itself as a member of the Indian Ocean community. 

This article draws on a new AP4D report: What does it look like for Australia to strengthen its Indian Ocean Engagement. AP4D thanks all who contributed.