Australian Interest in the Indian Ocean: Domestic Motivations

20 Feb, 2015    ·   4838

Stephen Westcott looks at why Australia is expanding its focus to include the Indian Ocean Region

Stephen Westcott
Stephen Westcott
Research Intern
Australia has been edging closer to embracing the Indian Ocean region for several years and finally openly declared in the 2013 Defence White Paper that it considered the Indian Ocean to be a key interest of the country. The international compulsions behind Australia’s new focus, from the rise of India to the concern over China’s recent posturing to the securing of its neighbouring sea lanes from criminal activities, are all relatively well known. Less widely discussed are Australia’s domestic factors that have led to this relatively new policy approach. This dearth of analysis naturally beggars the question: what, if any, are the domestic motivations behind Australia’s relatively new interest in the Indian Ocean?

The answer to this question rests first and foremost on the growing concern about the state and nature of the Australian economy. Though services such as education are an increasing part of the Australian economy, Australia still predominately relies upon its export of primary resources, especially mineral resources and agricultural products. Indeed, Australia managed by and large to avoid the worst of the Global Financial Crisis in primarily due to its strong export growth to Asia and in particular the People’s Republic of China. According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics quoted by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s exports to China in 2013 broke approximately US$94 billion, which amounts to nearly a third of Australia’s total exports. Indeed, this figure is effectively double the second highest export partner, Japan, and certainly dwarfs Australian-Indian trade which reaches approximately US$46 billion and US$10 billion respectively. The sheer volume of Australia-China bilateral trade, which is only expected to grow following the reaching of a free trade agreement in November 2014, has caused consternation amongst a few Australians who worry the country is becoming too dependent on the Asian giant.

Even with such worries aside, the degree to which the Australian economy is linked to China’s has made it particularly susceptible to any shifts. With the Chinese economy now definitely slowing, there has been concern from industry groups in Australia that the country could dip into a recession owing to a subsequent decline in the country’s exports. With decreasing demand from other traditional trading partners in Asia and Europe, Australian diplomats have naturally begun to look around for other markets for export in order to mitigate the impact of any economic slowdown and ensure that Australia does not, as the current Trade Minister articulated, “have all our eggs in one basket.” With two of the BRICS countries, India and South Africa, and several other key growing economies, such as Indonesia, having a presence in Indian Ocean, it is a natural for Australia to take more of an interest to events off its western shores.

Of course the growing interest has not been completely driven by economic concerns. The fact that there have been three prominent Defence and/or Foreign Ministers over the past seven years from the Indian Ocean facing Western Australia has certainly helped as they have sought to raise the state’s profile by highlighting the importance of the Indian Ocean at the national level as well as hosting international summits in Perth. More influential has been the increasing concern within Australian society over the potential impact of asylum-seekers, who largely originate from the Indian Ocean. A 2014 poll conducted by an influential Australian think-tank, the Lowy Institute, found that approximately 75 per cent of Australians consider asylum-seekers, especially those that arrive via boat, to be a threat to the stability of the country and believe they should be discouraged, if not actively repulsed. Even though the extent to which asylum-seekers attempting to reach Australia realistically constitute a threat is contentious, these perceptions have been highly influential on recent Australian domestic politics. As Indian Ocean littoral countries are typically where these asylum-seekers come from, Australia has inevitably taken greater interest and sought ways to improve stability in the region, if only to address the flow of refugees at the source. 

Part of the shift also has to do with Australia’s perception of itself as a ‘middle power’ that should have a significant interest and engagement with its neighbourhood. Indeed, this is a near universal belief within the Australian polity that the only real debate has been over whether the country is stronger than a middle power and how best to exercise this power. In essence, Australia’s strong self-conception of itself as a middle power has led it to pursue policies that seek to contribute, as a ‘good international citizen’, to the security of the international community and to be a source of diplomatic influence. This has manifested most visibly with Australia’s maintenance and utilisation of a relatively small but highly effective defence force. The ADF is utilised by Australia not only as a deterrent against encroachment on its interests, but also frequently for expeditionary missions alongside the US and also on of its own initiative within its neighbourhood, as Australia did in 1999 in Timor Leste and in 2003 in the Solomon Islands. The recent interest that Australia has shown in the Indian Ocean clearly has the imprint of its middle power mentality, and it will clearly attempt to ‘punch above its weight’ as it enters the region in earnest.