In late November 2011, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith confirmed that the Force Posture Review (FPR) will consider the future strategic role of the Cocos and Christmas Islands. Mr Smith suggested that while no formal proposal existed, the Cocos Islands could, in the future, host joint US-Australian naval and air assets. The plan has significant merit and would dramatically increase Australian power projection on the long-neglected Indian Ocean flank. Yet, this latest development, coupled with an increased American posture in Northern Australia, must be accompanied by regional engagement, or risk alienating regional states.
The Cocos Island group consists of two atolls and 27 islands and is located in the Indian Ocean, some 2,950 kilometres north-west of Perth, Western Australia and 1,272 kilometres south-west of Jakarta, Indonesia. Currently, the islands serve as a refuelling stop for the Royal Australian Air Force’s Orion surveillance fleet. The extended range of the forthcoming Orion replacement, the Boeing P8 Poseidon, will provide increased opportunities for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and, potentially, US Defence assets.
While requiring substantial infrastructure changes, the Cocos bases could potentially serve to meet joint strategic objectives in the region. An increased ADF presence would ensure security for Australian interests in the Indian Ocean, particularly lucrative hydrocarbon projects, a motivating concern of the FPR. While Diego Garcia provides a strategically important garrison for the United States in the Indian Ocean, the coral atoll is too far removed from Asian Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and, more particularly, the increasingly fractious South China Sea. An increased US presence in the Cocos would be consistent with recent trends in global US Force Posture, complementing heavy bases, such as Okinawa and Guam, with lighter facilities, similar to recently announced developments in Darwin.
While long on the periphery of Australia’s strategic considerations, the islands are of significant geopolitical importance. Defence strategist Ross Babbage, in a 1988 study titled, ‘Should Australia Plan to Defend Christmas and Cocos Islands’, cited the strategic denial and power projection credentials of the External Territories. While the islands provide basing potential with which Australia could magnify its influence, their loss to foreign influence could, correspondingly, provide a base from which to target Australia’s SLOCs and the economically vital north-west. Further, the islands’ proximity to major shipping lanes, including potential chokepoints in the Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Makassar Straits, provides an added strategic dimension to defence posture considerations.
The Cocos Islands and Christmas Island provide Australia with significant enhancements to its Fisheries Zone and Exclusive Economic Zone. The potential fisheries, minerals and hydrocarbon reserves within these zones require security consideration, particularly in circumstances where there are projected food and energy shortages across South and South-East Asia. In recent years, the remit of the Royal Australian Navy has expanded to increasingly include a “border protection” style role, combating unauthorised entry vessels. While current circumstances indicate that an armed attack against Australia is unlikely, violations of sovereignty from illegal fishing and by other non-state actors, represent an existing and probably, growing, threat. Traffic from a joint facility would go some way towards mitigating low-level, yet high impact, security challenges. Additionally, traditional security concerns by state actors against the zones may be addressed through the increased deterrence and dissuasion opportunities afforded by the islands’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier” status.
Yet, such attempts by Australia and the United States to create a more balanced posture may encounter a number of prohibitive obstacles, not the least of which is how regional neighbours may view Australia’s seemingly more aggressive military stance.
Expanded defence operations in the islands could potentially have profound effects on the unique ecosystem and biodiversity. Consideration must also be given to the local population. Canberra should be prepared for local resistance from the islands’ six hundred, mostly ethnic Malay, inhabitants. Relative isolation from the Australian mainland, and a lack of exposure to large-scale defence assets, could mean that Islanders view proposals for a joint facility very differently to residents of the Northern Territory. Unlike Darwin, the Cocos Islands have not had a long military history to help prepare the community for a joint facility.
Regionally, were Mr Smith’s proposal to become a reality, South-East Asian neighbours and regional bodies would surely be wary of such a dramatic shift in Australia’s military posture. Relations with Indonesia, which has already voiced concerns over the developments in Darwin, could potentially weaken as the ADF and the US seek to ensure the security of the shipping lanes that transit Indonesian waters. Economic considerations dictate that Canberra must also reflect on how such developments could be viewed in China, the destination of many of the merchant vessels leaving north-west Australia. While China is likely to welcome security of supply, Beijing would equally be concerned over developments that may see Australia become a southern bulwark against its own strategic objectives.
To avoid potential tension, Canberra must highlight some of the strategic realities in the region that have motivated changes to force posture.
The growth in regional states’ economies and military capabilities has increased the geopolitical importance of the north-west flank of Australia. Within this context, the ADF’s historic technological sophistication, relative to regional militaries, is being eroded.
As Future Directions International noted about the joint facilities in Darwin, increased military links are not in response to a direct military threat, but rather a continued commitment to the good order of the Indo-Pacific region. Equally, adjustments to ADF posture, such as the potential use of the Cocos Islands, are not brash arbitrary developments; they are consistent with Defence’s 2009 White Paper, the FPR and Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS Treaty.
Finally, Canberra has long recognised that the Indo-Pacific will become an increasingly important strategic theatre over the coming decades. Accordingly, the ADF’s doctrine and capability are projected to meet this expanded role. It is imperative for the ADF to maximise opportunities, through the provision of infrastructure such as a Cocos base, to capitalise on its capability potential. Such developments will allow the ADF to become a responsible stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, by promoting the security of SLOCs, mitigating potential security challenges, and improving response times and logistic support to humanitarian operations.
Northern Australia & Energy Security Research Programmes