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Growing focus on Indian Ocean for new Defence Minister

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has reinforced Australia’s position as an Indian Ocean power during a speech at the Indo-Pacific Conference hosted in Perth, highlighting the nation’s plan and commitment to enhance the security and prosperity of the region.

Australia’s disastrous 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 geo-strategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the “Defence of Australia”.

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While Australia’s alliance with the US further enhanced the nations position as an integral US ally, mounting domestic political dissatisfaction, the new Whitlam government and the mounting cost of Australias involvement in the conflict, combined with rapidly declining US support for the conflict, saw the nations post-Second World War strategic reality and doctrine begin to shift away from regional intervention and towards a policy favouring the defence of the Australian mainland and outlying territories.

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, enabling the reorientation of Australias strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identified: “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.” 

In the maritime domain, 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 Navys Collins Class submarines and an increasing number of surface warships. 

However, the rapidly evolving geo-strategic situation and bubbling arms race are 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 and Australia’s commitment to the Indian Ocean during a period of geo-strategic competition transforming the Indo-Pacific. 

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Indian Ocean takes centrestage

Recognising this perfect storm of challenges, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has used the Indo-Pacific Conference to outline the Australian government’s plan of attack for engaging with and securing the continuing prosperity, security and stability of the Indian Ocean and its surrounding territories as they are equally impactful on the strength, vitality and sustainability of Australia’s own economic, political and strategic future.

“An ocean that defines not just our security and economic outlook but our place in the world. That is why we now talk about the Indo-Pacific region. A concept that has developed from our location at the fulcrum of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. 

The Indian Ocean has not always received the same level of attention in our strategic thinking as the Pacific Ocean. Australia has tended to see itself as a Pacific Ocean state.

It was not until 1987 that Australia adopted a Two Ocean Navy policy, prompting a significant re-posturing of Australian forces to the west. And we owe Governor Beazley a large vote of thanks for his leadership in realising that position,” Minister Reynolds said in her address. 

The growing complexities of the geo-strategic, 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. 

While the growing strategic capacity of Indian Ocean nations like India and Pakistan are well known, and China’s own interests beginning with it’s first overseas base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa have drawn attention, the economic impact of the economic links is of growing importance, particularly as Australia is being forced to directly decide between economic growth and prosperity and strategic security as the competition between China and the US continues to unfold. 

“Today, up to half of our Navy fleet is based permanently in Western Australia, including all six of the Collins submarines. Our equities in the Indian Ocean are clear:

  • Approximately 42 per cent of our exports by value depart from Western Australia.
  • Our exclusive economic zone extends deep into the Indian Ocean – containing the strategically valuable territories of Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islands.
  • The Indian Ocean is home to five of Australia’s top 15 trading partners: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
  • And our LNG sector is booming largely thanks to projects located on our North Western Shelf. 

For over 70 years, Australians have reaped the economic and security benefits of a benign security environment in the Indian Ocean. But the strategic landscape is rapidly shifting. We are living through the biggest realignment of the geopolitical landscape since World War II.

“Like the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is increasingly characterised by rising strategic competition and intensifying great power rivalries. We have seen a proliferation of naval activity and a race to secure access to strategic ports right across the Indian Ocean rim, which afford both economic and strategic advantage,” Minister Reynolds explained. 

Encouraging global allies and promoting a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific

Australia has historically aligned itself with larger, global powers. And the global significance of the Indian Ocean has seen Australia support the increased involvement of larger global powers to support the peaceful rise and development of the region. 

Other players such as the US, France, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Japan are also playing a bigger role. The emerging presence of a wider range of strategic players is creating a more congested and contested regional environment. But while competition is growing, large swaths of the Indian Ocean remain ungoverned. It is in these ungoverned seams where coercive statecraft, grey-zone tactics and transnational crime have the potential to flourish, the Minister said. 

This supports Australia’s continuing commitment to promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific that supports the economic demands of each individual nation, where the global rules-based order, established in the aftermath of the Second World War continues to play a prominent role:

Australia’s Indo-Pacific vision is for a region that is free, open and inclusive. Where disputes are resolved peacefully, without force or coercion. We want an Indian Ocean where international rules and norms are respected. Where investment and infrastructure builds growth and development rather than indebtedness and reliance. Where countries operate transparently, and where the sovereignty of all states, big and small, is protected," Minister Reynolds explained. 

Your thoughts

The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets, namely by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.

Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation – again led by China but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN.

Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN. Is it time for an overhaul of the Two Ocean policy to better equip the Navy?

Let us know your thoughts 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.

Growing focus on Indian Ocean for new Defence Minister
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