Out of focus: Australia neglects western Indian Ocean
23 Apr 2024|

The Quad partners often discuss the Indo-Pacific, but they hold differing views on what exactly it is. That disparity has tangible effects, such as Australia’s diminished interest in piracy in the western Indian Ocean compared with its Quad partners. While China consistently demonstrates interest in the seas off eastern Africa, Australia does not, neglecting significant maritime zones that are vulnerable to security threats. 

India and Japan advocate for a broad interpretation of the Indo-Pacific, including the western Indian Ocean, aligning with their extensive economic and security interests. The US, through its National Defence Authorisation Act 2020, has expanded its conception of the Indo-Pacific to the east coast of Africa, while Australia maintains a narrow focus on the Pacific, its own side of the Indian Ocean and parts of Southeast Asia, as reiterated in its recently launched 2024 National Defence Strategy. 

That divergence has practical implications, particularly for maritime security challenges such as piracy. Australia’s limited attention to piracy in the western Indian Ocean contrasts with the proactive stance of its Quad partners. For example, recent actions by the Indian Navy to recover ships hijacked by Somali pirates, including the Ruen on 15 March off Somalia and the Al-Kambar on 29 March in the Arabian Sea, underscore the need for further collaborative action. 

It’s not that Australia hasn’t contributed to the region. In 2009, Canberra announced spending of $500,000 to help Kenya with counterpiracy efforts. There have been deployments by the Royal Australian Navy since 1990, and in 2014 the navy participated in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission and the EU Mission on Regional Maritime Capacity Building in the Horn of Africa (EUCAP Nestor), emphasising capacity-building in the western Indian Ocean. 

However, no concrete Australian effort has been put into piracy control because much of the RAN’s attention has been nearer to home. Canberra’s priorities are shaped more by geographical proximity and direct threat perceptions than by a comprehensive understanding of Indo-Pacific security dynamics. 

Australia’s absence in the western Indian Ocean region results in reliance on extra-regional entities for maritime domain awareness, such as the European Union’s Naval Force Atalanta and its Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa. As those centres struggle to share information effectively, conduct research and analyse maritime developments, this poses a challenge for coordinated operations in the region. 

Further, by overlooking crucial sea routes from the Persian Gulf across the Indian Ocean, Australia ignores significant trade corridors that carry two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments and a third of the world’s bulk cargo. Recent incidents, such as Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that led to a ship carrying 16,000 sheep and cattle being stranded in an Australian port, highlight the vulnerability of global trade and the need for comprehensive maritime security measures, for which a basic prerequisite is a broader understanding of the Indo-Pacific. 

Conversely, China shows consistent interest in the region, investing in port infrastructure in Djibouti, Kenya, Madagascar and Tanzania and establishing diplomatic footholds in those nations. The Chinese navy’s anti-piracy operations off Somalia since 2008, as part of China’s broader Maritime Silk Road initiative, reflect its commitment to projecting maritime power and influence. 

China’s strategic influence is also demonstrated by the fact that Houthi leaders have granted safe passage to Chinese ships, reducing the risks faced by more than 1,200 Chinese merchant vessels travelling through the region. China’s actions highlight not only its strategic foresight but also the geopolitical competition that Australia—and by extension, the Quad—must navigate. 

Australia must recognise the strategic significance of the western Indian Ocean and actively collaborate within the Quad framework. Updating Australia’s strategic outlook to encompass the wider region is needed to address evolving geopolitical challenges. By demonstrating reciprocity and commitment to its Quad partners, particularly India, Australia can strengthen regional stability and resilience while fostering inclusiveness and cooperation.