Australia begins to step up efforts in the northeast Indian Ocean

Australia’s focus on building relations with India has led to the relative neglect of other important Indian Ocean states. This left a hole in his Indo-Pacific strategy.

Last month, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced a series of new Australian initiatives in the North East Indian Ocean as part of an enhanced Australian engagement in the region. It may not be an “Indian Ocean Step-up” yet, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

The 2020 Strategic Defense Update identifies the northeast Indian Ocean, along with Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as the three priority areas surrounding Australia as part of its “immediate region “. Australia has long focused on Southeast Asia and in recent years the Pacific Step-up. But it is only very recently that the northeast Indian Ocean has received more attention.

Although unlikely to reach Southeast Asia or the Pacific in its strategic importance to Australia, the northeast Indian Ocean region will be of greater importance than ever. .

The growing strategic competition between the great powers threatens the stability of the region. Countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are keen to engage with Australia, which is seen as a benign partner who can balance other relationships and help build their capacity, particularly in security. maritime. Australia has every interest in seeing a stable and prosperous region with well-governed maritime spaces. The growing Chinese presence in the region also requires an increased commitment from Australia.

These initiatives follow similar moves by Quad partners, the United States and Japan, to strengthen security relations in the region.

Payne’s announcements include the opening of a high commission in the Maldives and new spending initiatives of $36.5 million for maritime security, trade and connectivity in the northeast Indian Ocean. These include funding to improve regional cooperation in maritime transport, disaster resilience and information sharing. The recent MV X-Press Pearl maritime disaster off Colombo was an important reminder of the region’s vulnerability to maritime accidents and the need for enhanced regional cooperation on environmental security.

Other initiatives focus on increased corporate engagement, including funding for:

  • opportunities in the digital sector in Bangladesh, including government and financial services
  • promote infrastructure investment, possibly through the creation of a Bay of Bengal equivalent of the Australia-India Infrastructure Forum to promote two-way infrastructure investment
  • improve access to the Indian and Bangladeshi markets for Australian suppliers of mining equipment, technology and services (METS) (long a sore point for Australian companies doing business in India)
  • establishing LNG supply chain relationships between Australia, India and Bangladesh. This will draw on Australia’s successful (some might say overly successful) experience in actively developing the LNG supply chain with China over the past two decades. These two markets are likely to be of considerable importance to the Australian LNG industry.
Humanitarian aid and disaster relief stocks from Australia are unloaded at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Sri Lanka, June 2021 (Ministry of Defence)

Australia has a long and good working relationship with Sri Lanka, particularly on border management and transnational crime. While enforcement actions by Sri Lankan authorities and Australian publicity campaigns have largely halted the smuggling of people from Sri Lanka, border management and maritime surveillance remain central to the relationship.

In 2021, Australia provided around 4,200 Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) units, a radio tracking system, to help Sri Lanka track its fishing fleet. Five drones were also donated to the Sri Lankan police to improve their surveillance capabilities. Australia also recently sponsored the “Zero Chance” competition, allowing Sri Lankan filmmakers to produce short films with an “anti-trafficking message”.

Australia has also provided US$5 million to help establish a Sri Lankan Border Risk Assessment Center (BRAC). This is part of a new strategy that helps Sri Lanka’s 11 agencies responsible for border management share real-time intelligence, systems, resources and data to detect and respond to illegal activity. The creation of BRAC is also an opportunity to demonstrate Australia’s expertise in border management.

Bangladesh, with a population of over 160 million and a booming economy, has emerged as a regional heavyweight and will be a major source of economic opportunity for Australia. In September 2021, Australia and Bangladesh signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement which provides a platform to find ways to boost economic ties and remove barriers to trade and investment . We are very far from a free trade agreement, but at least the two countries are talking to each other.

There is also growing interest in a stronger commitment to security. An Australian defense adviser is stationed in Dhaka who could help open up a range of potential initiatives to strengthen security ties between Australia and Bangladesh.

Australia has also taken steps to strengthen its engagement with the Maldives, including accrediting the Colombo-based defense adviser. The Australian Federal Police are already working closely with authorities in the Maldives on a range of issues, including drugs and violent extremism.

The opening of an Australian High Commission in Malé, announced by Payne, completes Australian diplomatic representation in the region. The representation in Malé follows the recent opening of a diplomatic post by Great Britain and plans for an American embassy.

Bilateral relations in the Bay of Bengal region will also be complemented by increased engagement with the regional multilateral grouping BIMSTEC. Among other things, Australia hopes to gain observer status with the grouping as part of a show of commitment to the region.

All of these initiatives follow similar moves by Quad’s partners, the United States and Japan, to strengthen security relations in the region. Britain is also paying increased attention to the Bay of Bengal states as part of its Indo-Pacific tilt. This can sometimes involve a delicate juggling of concerns about human rights abuses in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

These initiatives may be small steps, but they signal progress towards filling an important gap in Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

This article was produced as part of a multi-year Indian Ocean project by the National Security College, Australian National University, with support from the Department of Defence.

Comments are closed.