Looking west and acting west


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AUSTRALIA is ‘Looking West’ and it is increasingly also ‘Acting West’. Australia is now taking a more comprehensive strategic approach towards the Indo-Pacific region, and this has important implications for its role in the Indian Ocean. It is paying much greater attention to maritime security in the Indian Ocean and the need for new partners in the region, including India.

Australia has major interests in the Indian Ocean – indeed, it has by far the longest Indian Ocean coastline of any state (more than 14,000 km) and the largest area of maritime jurisdiction (including an EEZ of some 3.8 million km2 and an extended continental shelf of two million km2). Australia’s economy is underpinned by its exports that cross the Indian Ocean: Australia is the most important minerals exporter in the Indian Ocean and, after the Persian Gulf, the largest source of energy in the region.1 All this gives it a vital stake in Indian Ocean security.

Yet, for much of its history, Australia has not looked towards the Indian Ocean; instead, it has looked north towards East Asia and the Pacific in terms of both opportunities and threats. The nation’s capital and most of its population and industry is on its east coast. Its major economic relationships and trading partners are in the Pacific: China, Japan, the United States and Korea. Australia has also long perceived key security threats as emanating from its north: from Japan in the 1940s and from China during the Cold War. Since World War II, Australia’s principal strategic focus has been to address potential threats that could emanate through the Southeast Asian archipelago to its north.

In the Indian Ocean, Canberra has for the last century largely looked to great and powerful friends for its security: first relying on the Royal Navy and then the US Navy to secure its sea lines of communication. Up until the late 1980s, Australia did not even have any major warships based in the Indian Ocean. These arrangements have generally worked to Australia’s satisfaction. Indeed, for decades, Australia’s most important strategic objective in the Indian Ocean has been to draw the United States further into the region and keep it there.

But the changing balance of power in Asia and the world is casting doubt on how long this strategy will work. The United States will likely hold military predominance in the Indian Ocean region for some decades, but this cannot last forever. The many demands on US defence resources and the rise of China and India as major military powers means that Australia will need to reconceptualize its perspectives about the Indian Ocean and prepare for a different looking region. These realities lie behind Australia’s evolving thinking about the Indo-Pacific as a key strategic concept.

Before looking at what the ‘Indo-Pacific’ means for Australia and its role in the region, it is important to understand how the idea of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ has moulded Australia’s strategic perspectives. The idea of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ has been one of the most important mental maps for Australia over the last several decades and indeed is now an almost ubiquitous part of Australia’s thinking about the world. The concept of the Asia-Pacific as a region was initially pushed during the 1970s and ’80s by countries such as Japan and Australia that wanted to better bind the United States with the economically vibrant East Asia. Although primarily driven by economics, the idea of the Asia-Pacific has also had a strong security element: keeping the United States as a benign offshore balancer and the main security provider to East Asia. These motivations remain compelling for Australia.


In recent years strategic thinkers in Australia, India, the United States and elsewhere have also begun to use the ‘Indo-Pacific’ (or the ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ as some prefer to call it) as a geo-strategic concept – where the Indian and Pacific Oceans are seen as an interdependent strategic and economic space, especially in relation to maritime security of the long Asian littoral. Australians have tended to be among the most active supporters of the idea of the Indo-Pacific, both among analysts and at an official level.2 For example, Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper noted what it called ‘the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic arc’ which Australia must concern itself with, with Southeast Asia lying at its centre.3 In other words, in strategic terms Australia must look first to Southeast Asia and then beyond to the Asian littoral stretching from the northwest Pacific to the Persian Gulf.

The idea of the Indo-Pacific is driven by the major economic and strategic shifts that are now occurring in broader Asia, including the expansion of strategic interests of both China and India into the others’ core areas of interest. China’s maritime security interests now extend into the Indian Ocean as far as the Persian Gulf and India’s security interests extend at least as far as the South China Sea. It is also important to understand what this idea is not. The term is not intended to suggest that for strategic purposes the whole of the Indian Ocean region should simply be aggregated with the Pacific. To its advocates, the Indo-Pacific is intended as a functional concept that emphasizes, first, the growing economic and security interactions that are developing right along the Asian littoral and, second, that these economic and security interdependencies should be understood and addressed in a holistic way.


A conceptual shift in Australia’s perspectives from one primarily focused on the Asia-Pacific towards a more unified view of the Indo-Pacific has important implications for Australia’s role in the region. Australia has benefited considerably from the economic rise of China and stands to gain major benefits from the economic rise of India and other countries in southern Asia. The expected conclusion of a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA) with India later this year signals the start of a much deeper economic engagement between Australia and much of southern Asia. But these opportunities also come with new strategic risks that require significant adjustments in Australian strategic thinking.

Australia is beginning to take a much more active political and security role in the Indian Ocean region that may transform its role in the coming years. Australia’s increased focus on the Indian Ocean is being manifested in several ways. First, Australia is rebalancing its naval and other defence resources towards the Indian Ocean. Second, Australia is enhancing its defence and security with the United States in the Indian Ocean. Third, Australia is developing new strategic partnerships in the region, including with India. Fourth, Australia is committed to helping build stronger and more effective Indian Ocean regional institutions.


For some years, Australia has been rebalancing defence resources from its east coast towards the Indian Ocean and the north. This began in the 1980s, with a greater emphasis on continental defence under the so-called ‘Defence of Australia’ policy. Australia then began building a two ocean navy through moving around half its existing fleet to the Indian Ocean. New air bases were built in Western Australia and most of Australia’s strike aircraft were repositioned in central Australia. The gradual rebalancing of defence resources from the eastern side of the Australian continent to the north and west continues. A recent Force Posture Review recommended, among other things, the development of new naval infrastructure at ports in Western Australia; the upgrading of Western Australian airbases for greater use by maritime surveillance and strike aircraft; and the upgrading of a small airfield on Cocos Island in the Indian Ocean. Australia’s plans to modernize and significantly expand its submarine fleet based at Fremantle, Western Australia (to up to 12 submarines at a cost of more than $40 billion) presages a considerably expanded maritime security role for Australia in the Indian Ocean.

A further consequence of Australia’s greater focus on Indian Ocean security will be enhanced defence cooperation between Australia and the United States in the region. There will be increased operational use of Australian facilities by US forces, with the intention of facilitating US access to Southeast Asia and the eastern Indian Ocean in the event of a contingency.4 This includes arrangements for the rotational use of facilities at Darwin and elsewhere in northern Australia by US marines and air force. There will also likely be greater use of Fremantle port by the US Navy, and potentially also joint Australian/US use of the airstrip on Australia’s Cocos Island.


Importantly, Australia recognizes that increased activities in the Indian Ocean must be undertaken in cooperation with new regional partners. The vision of the Indo-Pacific as an interconnected strategic system provides an extremely useful conceptual framework for Australia’s strategic relationship with India and other developing partnerships in the Indian Ocean region. Historically, Australia has had relatively few security links in southern Asia, and particularly with India. The development of the Australia-India relationship in recent years reflects not only a recognition of shared interests in the Indian Ocean region but much more broadly across the Indo-Pacific. The two countries are now seeking out several areas for security cooperation, and particularly naval cooperation, in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.5

The convergence in the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean and Pacific highlights Australia and India’s common interests. These include shared concerns in Southeast Asian maritime security (such as in the Malacca Strait) and threats from terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Both India and Australia have significant stakes in the maintenance of political stability and territorial integrity of Southeast Asian states. There are also many shared diplomatic interests between India, Australia and ASEAN, including a strong interest in seeing China playing a balanced role in the region in accordance with international norms.

The idea of the Indo-Pacific as an interdependent strategic arena also impacts on how Australia perceives other potential partners in Indian Ocean security. In recent years Australia has moved towards a closer security relationship with Japan. This is primarily driven not by recent disputes in the northwest Pacific, but by the value of Japan as a strategic partner throughout the Indo-Pacific arena, including potentially in the Indian Ocean. Australia may also move to develop closer defence links with France in the Indian Ocean, moving beyond the bilateral cooperation arrangements that are currently focused on the South Pacific.


Australia will also likely encourage its partners in Southeast Asia to play a more active role in the Indian Ocean. Indonesia is seen by many as punching below its weight in the Indian Ocean. As a secular, democratic and Muslim majority nation, Indonesia could potentially play an important role in helping to stabilize the region. Australia would likely encourage Jakarta to further develop President Jokowi’s vision for Indonesia as a major maritime power.6 Australia may also likely develop new defence partnerships in southern Asia, with a focus on capacity building. Australia has recently gifted two offshore patrol vessels to Sri Lanka, and in the coming years there may be closer defence relations with countries such as Bangladesh and even Myanmar.


Australia is also giving much greater focus on developing stronger regional institutions in the Indian Ocean in conjunction with partners such as India. In contrast with East Asia, the Indian Ocean has relatively weak and ineffective region organizations – and a lack of cooperation and coordination among Indian Ocean states has allowed the growth of problems such as piracy, people and arms smuggling and illegal fishing. Australia has been instrumental in placing a range of maritime security issues on the agenda of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and is encouraging it to better coordinate its maritime security activities with organizations such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. It may also be that different and more focused regional institutions will need to be developed that include key extra-regional stakeholders such as China.

Whether or not we use the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, the concept reflects real changes that are occurring in strategic interactions between the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. This is forcing Australia to take a more unified approach towards security issues along the entire Asian littoral. As a result, Australia, in cooperation with several Indo-Pacific partners, is adopting a more active maritime security role in the Indian Ocean. A maritime security partnership between Australia and India, in particular, has the potential to transform the strategic landscape of the region.



1. Australia is the world’s second largest coal exporter and within a few years is likely to become the world’s largest LNG exporter. Brian Robins, ‘Qatar Gas Challenge’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 2011.

2. Rory Medcalf, ‘The Indo-Pacific: What’s in a Name?’ The American Interest 9(2), 10 October 2013.

3. Australian Government, Department of Defence, Defence White Paper 2013. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2013.

4. Even during the depths of the Cold War, Australia was reluctant to allow US military forces to operate from Australian territory, although US B-52 aircraft were permitted to undertake reconnaissance and training flights from Darwin in the early 1980s.

5. See generally, David Brewster, ‘The India-Australia Security and Defence Relationship: Developments, Constraints and Prospects’, Security Challenges 10(1), 2014, pp. 1-22.

6. Vibhanshu Shekhar and Joseph Chinyong Liow, Indonesia as a Maritime Power: Jokowi’s Vision, Strategies, and Obstacles Ahead. Brookings Institute, November 2014.