The View from Australia: Strategic Competition in the Indian Ocean

By Dr Kate O’Shaughnessy

That the Indo-Pacific region is facing unprecedented strategic uncertainty is now a core tenet of Australian foreign policy.  Mostly, Australian policy makers’ attention has been on the places where those uncertainties (code for Chinese military build-up and opaque lending) are being felt most acutely – the Pacific and Southeast Asia. 

The Indian Ocean hasn’t figured as much into Australia’s risk calculations.  In the last couple of years, that’s started to change, culminating in a major foreign policy speech by Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Perth at the 7th Indian Ocean Conference in early February 2024.   

What’s driven this change, why does it matter, and what will the trajectory of Australia’s engagement in the region look like? 

Australia’s stake in a complex region

Australia is as much an Indian Ocean nation as a Pacific one – we have the world’s longest Indian Ocean coastline, and the largest search and rescue zone in the region.  The broader significance of the Indian Ocean is also well known – a third of the world’s bulk cargo and two-thirds of global oil pass through its sea lanes. 

But our engagement in the Indian Ocean region compared to the Pacific, Southeast- and Northeast-Asia, has been much patchier over the years, because of a range of factors: the region’s extraordinary diversity, weak regional architecture, and uneven economic development. 

The Indian Ocean region takes in 23 countries, that range from major global economies India, Indonesia and France to small island states like Mauritius and Seychelles, as well as fragile states like Yemen and Somalia.   

Such diversity makes regional cooperation hard.  The peak regional body – the Indian Ocean Rim Association – has struggled for funding, a cohesive approach, and even member-buy in, ever since it was established in 1997.  And because IORA is weak, stronger members invest their time and energy in other regional groupings that yield more for them, like the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  Though ASEAN is complex too, the grouping has worked together for almost 60 years, has entrenched habits of cooperation, and core shared aspirations for its region.  The same can’t be said – in general – for the Indian Ocean region. 

The region does have economic significance for Australia, but it’s uneven.  Indian Ocean countries combined are in fact an even bigger customer for Australia’s trade than ASEAN – IORA members (excluding France) accounted for 17 per cent of Australia’s outbound trade in goods and services in 2022, compared to ASEAN’s 14 per cent.  But that number obscures the overall weakness of the region – just seven Indian Ocean countries do the bulk of the buying from us (India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates). 

These combined factors have mostly made it difficult for the region to collaborate at scale.  And it’s also made it difficult for Australia to articulate a coherent Indian Ocean vision.   

Geopolitical competition ramping up

However, Australia’s approach to the region has started to shift in the last couple of years, in part because of China’s increasingly assertive behaviour. 

China’s presence in the Indian Ocean has been steadily growing over the last decade and a half, starting with its deployment of naval vessels as part of the international response to the Somali piracy crisis from the 2010s, then the establishment of military base in Djibouti in 2016, infrastructure investments throughout the region through the Belt and Road Initiative especially on ports but also undersea cables, and most recently a security agreement with the new (more pro-China) government in the Maldives.  It now has an embassy in every Indian Ocean country – even tiny ones like Comoros in the Western Indian Ocean.  And some analysts estimate China has three to eight warships on rotation in the Indian Ocean at any given time. 

In response to these changes, Australia has focussed on three key areas: maritime security, partnership with India (which has a major stake in the region and sees itself as the net security provider), and emphasis on the rules-based order.  It has included – amongst other initiatives – joint patrols by Indian and Australian maritime surveillance aircraft (P8s), establishment of a High Commission in the Maldives in 2023, participation with Japan and the US in India’s Exercise Malabar in 2023, and close support for IORA (Australia is one of a handful of countries that seconds foreign ministry officials into the organisation to try to strengthen its capabilities). 

2024 – Shift in Australia’s public messaging on the Indian Ocean

It’s in this heightened context that Australia’s co-hosting – with India – of the 7th Indian Ocean Conference in Perth in February 2024 was significant, and for two reasons:  the public messaging, and the attendees. 

On the messaging, Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s keynote speech to 400 attendees from across the Indian Ocean set out publicly Australia’s vision of, and for the region.  It pulled no punches – she outlined an environment where Chinese opaque lending, naval buildup and bids for influence is occurring in ways not dissimilar to the Pacific.  But she also was at pains to emphasise a positive agenda for the region – one where small and large states alike could maintain sovereignty and pursue their own national interests. 

That positive agenda was clear from the breadth of attendees –Sri Lankan President Wickremesinghe, 17 ministers including the Foreign Ministers of Maldives, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Mozambique, Singapore and more, as well as external ministerial representatives from Vietnam, Japan, Tonga and the United Kingdom, and heads of regional organisations like IORA, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.  Over the course of just over 24 hours, Foreign Minister Wong and Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts met them all. 

While the conference was organised and co-hosted with India – which sees itself as the net security provider in the region – it wasn’t only about India, at least not from Australia’s perspective.  And that’s an important distinction.  Because many of the region’s smaller and medium states, including Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles, are as uncomfortable with the idea of Indian dominance in the region as they are with any other larger player. 

It’s significant that the kinds of initiatives Australia announced at this conference were regional by nature, respectful of India’s vital role, but not to the exclusion of smaller players – regional maritime leadership training, co-leadership with India of the IORA Maritime Safety and Security working group, partnerships with the World Bank to improve connectivity and regional energy integration across South Asia. 

And despite the challenges of doing things regionally in the Indian Ocean, countries within it want more of it – to reduce supply chain risks, maintain strategic equilibrium, combat climate change, and shore up adherence to international rules.  As the Indian Ocean Conference made clear, that commitment to working regionally includes Australia. 

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