There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west

A sunset on the Indian Ocean is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 23 crew member on the International Space Station (ISS).If Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister next week, expect Australia to devote greater attention to the Indian Ocean. Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Shadow Defence Minister David Johnston are both from Western Australia. They’ve got a keen appreciation of the defence presence in their state and the importance of protecting offshore developments in Western Australia.

The Defence White Paper 2013 identified the Indian Ocean as a vital strategic interest for Australia. There’s been increased international focus on strategic relations between major powers in the Indian Ocean. And coupled with the Asian Century White Paper, the Government has been attaching much greater importance to Australia’s partnership with India.

So it’s surprising that there’s been no commentary at all on a Senate Report released in June on the importance of the Indian Ocean rim for our foreign, trade and defence policy. The report sets out many sensible recommendations on increasing government and business opportunities in the region, which incorporates 26 countries and 30% of the world’s population.

As longstanding researchers in maritime affairs, we’re delighted the Senate Committee recommended the Australian Government establish an Institute for Indian Ocean Research in Western Australia. That’s a potential policy announcement for November in Perth, when Australia assumes the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), the region’s main organisation.

At the national level, the report sensibly recommends a greater commitment to the vital energy and mining infrastructure of our northwest. Representatives from the Western Australian Department of State Development expressed frustration to the Committee on the lack of progress of previous inquiries conducted into infrastructure security in the northwest region of the state.

We’d support the committee’s recommendation that Defence make it an urgent priority to focus on the defence of the northwest by holding larger and more visible military exercises there and for our Navy to be more visible in the area.

The ADF only has only one regional command at present—Northern Command (NORCOM), which commands and coordinates ADF activities across the north of Australia. The Commander of NORCOM is also ‘double-hatted’: he’s also controlling Defence’s contribution to border protection operations on behalf of Commander Border Protection Command.

With greater interest and activity in the Indian Ocean rim, there’s a case now for a new ADF Western Command (WESTCOM) to command and coordinate ADF operations in the region and the protection of the national infrastructure along the west coast.

Australia’s naval presence in the west is likely to increase further. Prime Minister Rudd recently foreshadowed the shift of some naval assets from Fleet Base East to Fleet Base West. This would reflect the changing global and regional strategic security landscape and the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean.

WESTCOM would enhance Defence liaison with the WA Government, presently conducted largely on a single service basis. Greater coordination would support a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to our defence and security interests in the west. The establishment of WESTCOM would also accord with the Senate Committee’s recommendation that Defence make it an urgent priority to focus on the defence of the northwest.

Australia’s upcoming chair of both the IOR-ARC and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (which has good prospects for advancing both naval and civil maritime cooperation) provides the opportunity for Australia to take a leading role in promoting the concept of an Indian Ocean rim. This includes broadening the membership of the IOR-ARC to include other key Indian Ocean countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Maritime issues are a common interest of rim countries and the Senate Committee made several recommendations in this regard. It recommended prioritising progress on effective and consistent port control measures in the Indian Ocean rim. This would enhance maritime safety and security by reducing the number of sub-standard merchant vessels operating in the region, particularly in the northwest Indian Ocean where piracy and other forms of maritime crime are prevalent.

With fisheries, the Senate Committee recommended that the IOR-ARC troika—India, Australia and Indonesia—encourage the larger and more developed countries to collaborate and collectively spearhead active engagement in promoting the health of marine life in the ocean. Initiatives could include assisting the smaller developing countries to protect their fish stocks from overexploitation and in growing their fishing industry in a sustainable way.

Of course, much of this depends on Australia adopting a more whole-of -government approach to Indian Ocean affairs, to better coordinate our efforts with sub-regional and issue specific groups in the Indian Ocean.

It also depends on the commitment to budget increases for the Foreign Affairs department. As ASPI’s Executive Director Peter Jennings and Professor Russell Trood have recently argued, DFAT has suffered a shameful leeching of resources in recent years.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director, ASPI and Sam Bateman is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user nasamarshall.