Australia must look west as influence of Indian Ocean grows

  • Op-ed

Western Australians have a beach front view of some of the biggest trends that will shape our nation's prosperity and security over the coming decades. That's why the Albanese Government invited ministers from across the region to come to Australia's Indian Ocean capital, Perth, last week for the 2024 Indian Ocean Conference.

The waters west of Scarborough Beach and beyond Rottnest Island are home to over a third of global container traffic, some of our top trading partners, and to the world's fastest growing economies. Australia has the longest Indian Ocean coastline and the region's largest search and rescue area. As Western Australians know better than anyone, the Indian Ocean matters to Australia.

There's never been a more important time for Australia to engage in the Indian Ocean. Major economic and strategic trends are reshaping the region. Great power competition, the impacts of climate change, the transition to clean energy and technological innovations are rapidly altering the dynamics of the Indian Ocean. Small and medium sized countries are often those most affected by these changes.

The Albanese Government is using every tool we have to shape the region we live in. We want to work with partners in the region to ensure that the Indian Ocean is peaceful, prosperous and secure and that all countries, big and small, are able to choose their own path in these dynamic times.

The Indian Ocean Conference in Perth was an important part of this regional engagement. Hosted by Foreign Minister Penny Wong, it was an opportunity for leaders from across the Indian Ocean to come together to find issues of common interest and to work together to address shared challenges in the region.

We're also pursuing this agenda beyond our borders. We've increased our diplomatic engagement with Indian Ocean countries. In the past 12 months, I've travelled extensively across South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Africa to re-engage our Indian Ocean partners. We've also demonstrated the level of our commitment by establishing a new embassy in Male, Maldives, and new consulates in Kolkata and Bengaluru.

Showing up is a pre-requisite for influence, but it's not enough in itself. Australia needs to look for opportunities where we can help solve shared problems in the region. To this end, we've been deepening business, education, development, sports, and cultural co-operation with our Indian Ocean partners.

We've also made a big step up in our security engagement to respond to the emerging threats in our region. That is why one of the Government's six priorities in implementing the Defence Strategic Review is to deepen our diplomatic and defence partnerships with key partners in the Indian Ocean.

The Government is adjusting the defence's force structure, posture and planning accordingly, with a renewed focus on the north-eastern Indian Ocean. WA's defence bases, which have been critical to Australia's security for decades, serve a vital role into the future.

We are making significant investments in HMAS Stirling and at the Henderson Shipyard in Perth — both of which are pivotal to ensuring the capability and capacity of our defence force, as well as building long-term, skilled jobs in WA. We are also upgrading critical air bases stretching from RAAF Base Learmonth through to Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Influencing the trends reshaping the Indian Ocean region in the national interest will require persistent effort. Our unique geography may have given us a seat at the table in regional institutions in the Indian Ocean, but we do not take this for granted. The Albanese Government will step up to this challenge over the coming decade. WA's unique perspective from the beach front of our engagement with the Indian Ocean will play a critical role.

The 2024 Indian Ocean Conference in Perth was a good place to start.

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