In memoriam: Sam Bateman, a sailor with the sea in his soul
22 Oct 2020|

We’ve just lost one of Australia’s and the region’s finest maritime and strategic thinkers and leaders. Sam Bateman died this week aged 82.

Sam seemingly had the sea in his soul. He was a true giant in the field of the law of the sea, oceans policy and maritime security. He was an intellectual pillar of the maritime security community in Asia.

Sam had a long-held belief that Australians should see themselves as part of a maritime nation and that maritime issues should be a key component of our national strategy. Sam was my mentor and mate for 40 years.

Sam had so many accomplishments. He joined the Royal Australian Navy as a 15-year-old cadet and, during his decades of service, had commands at sea and several stints in strategic policy planning in the Department of Defence. He left as a commodore and in 1993 was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service.

Sam didn’t relax. He was a key player in the formation of the Australian Centre for Maritime Studies and the editor for many years of its journal Maritime Studies (now the Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs).

He was a member of the Australian National Oceans Advisory Group established to advise the federal government on the implementation of Australia’s ocean policy.

He earned his doctorate at the University of New South Wales on a topic we were both passionate about: the strategic and political aspects of the law of the sea in East Asian seas.

Sam set up what became the Sea Power Centre – Australia, where he insisted that everything the centre did should be from a wider maritime, not purely naval, perspective. He was a strong advocate of encouraging all members of the RAN to understand the strategic rationale for their work.

Sam was the inaugural director of the Centre for Maritime Policy (which became the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security) and a long-term adviser to the maritime security program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

He was co-chair of several working groups at the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and appointed to the ASEAN Regional Forum’s Expert and Eminent Persons Group where he co-chaired the Maritime Security Working Group.

His views on the importance of maritime strategy for Australia were probably first articulated in his master’s thesis on the economic importance of Australian shipping, later published by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre as Australia’s overseas trade: strategic considerations. Sam firmly believed that Australia needed a strong national merchant fleet.

Sam had a wide network of research collaborators and friends in maritime affairs throughout the world and especially in the Indo-Pacific. News of his death brought an outpouring of messages on maritime discussion groups.

His friends and admirers were all in the same boat in talking about the collective loss to the maritime community: what a great man, friend, mentor and colleague Sam had been and how respected and admired he was for his scholarly integrity and policy contributions over the decades. Many commented on Sam’s honesty and integrity.

Many spoke of his collegiality and warmth and how caring he was in all his personal interactions: kind, gentle and nurturing to younger analysts. It was these qualities that made Sam such a brilliant mentor to so many of us in the maritime community.

Sam’s international profile was probably higher overseas than in Australia, which became obvious to me at a maritime meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila. Sam and I were the only non-officials there. Sam was the keynote speaker and it was very obvious that he commanded enormous respect from senior officials in the audience as he addressed regional maritime security challenges. He confidently handled a huge press conference after the speech was delivered.

His prolific writing, analysis and commentary has long been, and will continue to be, widely appreciated across the regional maritime security community.

Sam was very active in second track diplomacy over many years, especially in the CSCAP maritime working group, where everyone who worked with him appreciated his wise counsel. Sam integrated his practical seagoing experience with concern for good governance and stable security regimes.

He had the calmness of a captain handling a ship in stormy seas. He was always a balanced, fair and free thinker. In presenting his views, he was patient, measured and reasonable. In sometimes choppy waters at these meetings, Sam always steered the discussion towards a safe harbour.

Sam helped shape the CSCAP agenda, particularly regarding freedom of navigation. He understood that to build a stable maritime regime, there would have to be compromises between the interests of coastal states and those of maritime powers.

He had special credibility in pointing this out because of his long and distinguished naval career. His recent book Freedoms of navigation in the Asia–Pacific region is an excellent analysis of the debate and offers ways forward.

He also believed that military hydrographic surveys in a country’s exclusive economic zone cannot be easily separated from marine scientific research and should thus be subject to coastal state consent, a view denied by some maritime powers but now gaining wider traction.

At regional meetings, Sam’s seamanlike understanding of the most complex and intractable maritime security issues was appreciated, as was his lack of conceit. He encouraged others who held different views.

Sam devoted his working life to making the region and the world’s oceans safer and better managed with fairer and more stable regimes. His measured, objective contributions to better ocean governance will be greatly missed.

It was typical of Sam that he was working fruitfully on a range of research and policy projects before his death, including a book on the South China Sea. It’s hard for many of Sam’s friends and colleagues across the globe to deal with losing such an inspirational person. I count myself among those very privileged to have been his friend and to have learned so much from him.

While I worked with Sam on various projects, presented with him on many occasions, and co-authored with him—including ASPI reports on topics ranging from maritime terrorism, Australian oceans policy, the Indian Ocean and defence diplomacy—the thing I’ll treasure most is our time working in the Pacific and East Timor on maritime projects.

Sam had a soft spot for the Pacific islands and their peoples. He spent many happy years in his early naval career as captain of an Attack-class patrol boat HMAS Aitape, which formed part of the Papua New Guinea patrol boat group. During our many visits to the islands, at the end of each day I loved sharing a drink, a tale and a few laughs while looking out at the blue Pacific with him.

Sam, you were one of the finest people I have ever known. We have all been enriched by having known you. May you have fair winds and following seas. Vale, my friend, Commodore Dr Sam Bateman.

Editors’ note: Sam Bateman had been a contributor to The Strategist almost since its inception. One of his pieces has been among the top 10 most read Strategist posts of all time since it was published on 11 December 2018: ‘Norwegian frigate sinking has far-reaching implications’. We will miss his always knowledgeable, insightful contributions to Australia’s maritime security debate.