How Australia and India can collaborate in the western Indian Ocean

Deepening strategic and defence cooperation with India is one of Australia’s regional priorities, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s recent visit to India clearly demonstrated. As we seek to build our cooperation in ways that benefit both nations, we need to keep in mind what India wants most and how that fits with Australia’s interests. One of India’s priorities is security and stability in the Indian Ocean, including its westernmost edges. How might Australia best work with India in the western Indian Ocean?

Australia’s 2023 defence strategic review (and the 2020 defence strategic update) are crystal clear on where our priorities lie—the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the northeast Indian Ocean. So pressing are the needs in our immediate region that then defence minister Linda Reynolds announced in late 2020 that Australia would cease annual navy deployments to the Middle East and western Indian Ocean, ending almost 30 years of Australian maritime security operations in that part of the world.

No friendly country, including India, begrudges Australia making these carefully weighed decisions in our national interest. But it’s also worth us understanding that when India looks out into the Indian Ocean, it sees geostrategic uncertainty and competition, just as we do in the Pacific.

The significance of the Indian Ocean to global energy needs and supply chains, including for China, is well known. Half the world’s shipping container traffic transits through it and it’s home to 40% of the world’s offshore oil production. This has driven China to step up its Indian Ocean engagement, from signing port deals in the northeast in Sri Lanka and Pakistan to establishing a military base in 2016 in Djibouti.

Few Australian observers will have paid attention to the full extent to which China has embedded itself in the westernmost edges of the Indian Ocean over the last decade.

Among other things, China has developed or expanded port infrastructure right around the western edge of the Indian Ocean, including in Djibouti (2012), Kenya (Lamu, 2013), Madagascar (Tamatave, 2015) and Tanzania (Dar es Salaam, 2017).

Its forays into East Africa aren’t a fait accompli though. Tanzania pushed back against China’s proposal to build a $10 billion port at Bagamoyo that would also have banned any other parties from operating or accessing ports along a 900-kilometre stretch of coastline. Similarly, a 2018 deal with Comoros for China Bridge and Road Corporation to build a deep-water port in the capital, Moroni, hasn’t progressed and instead French logistics company Bolloré is expanding the existing port.

In parallel, China is expanding its economic, security and political presence in the western Indian Ocean island states (Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros and Madagascar). Apart from France, China is the only country with an embassy in each of these countries. It’s the biggest diplomatic presence in Seychelles, and according to some diplomatic sources the largest foreign donor in Comoros (the French government also assesses that China’s the largest creditor there). Confucius Institutes are on every island.

Huawei is also a key telecommunications provider across the region—providing Seychelles with its submarine cable, upgrading Madagascar’s telecommunications infrastructure, and building an inter-island undersea cable in Mauritius, where it has also installed a network of 4000 safe-city cameras (in a country with one of Africa’s lowest crime rates).

With these island nations right on India’s doorstep, it’s not hard to see why Delhi has concerns.

Any Australian cooperation with India in a region beyond our immediate neighbourhood needs to be based on three principles.

First, is reciprocity. We should be proactive in demonstrating to India that we understand why it cares about the western Indian Ocean and that we are willing to help India reinforce its strategic narratives, just as they are starting to do for Australia in the Pacific.

Second is managing long-term strategic risk. We need to consider the possibility that the balance of power in the Indian Ocean could change in the coming years, and potentially quite quickly. That’s even more the case now that the UK has formally opened negotiations with Mauritius to return the island of Diego Garcia, on which the US has run a naval base since the late 1960s. Mauritius says it’s committed to retaining the US base—but China will see an opportunity and lobby hard in Port Louis.

And third, proportionality. Support to India in the western Indian Ocean doesn’t have to mean Australia redeploys naval assets.

But there are some modest things we can do that signal to India—and to others—that long-term Indian Ocean security and stability matter to us too. These include:

  • Australia becoming an observer to the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), the mostly EU-funded sub-regional body that brings together Reunion (France), Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros and Madagascar. India, Japan and China are already observers and Russia’s been pushing to join.
  • We should work with India (through the IOC) to build the capacity of the regional Information Fusion and Operation Centres in Madagascar and Seychelles. India should take the lead as it’s got a MOU with the RCOC already, but Australia could provide very modest funding or expertise.
  • We should also consider a trilateral collaboration between India, Australia and France that shores up security of critical infrastructure like undersea cables, as a recent report by the ANU National Security College proposes. A co-branded project where Australia leads efforts in the Pacific and India and France leads them in the Indian Ocean would make the most sense.

Deliberately crafting a modest Australia-India collaboration in the western Indian Ocean can help demonstrate that we understand what matters to Delhi. And ultimately, enhancing the relationship with India is what matters to us.

This article was written as part of the Australia India Institute’s defence program undertaken with the support of the Australian Department of Defence. All views expressed in this article are those of the author only.