ADF Reviews Plans for the Indian Ocean with a Mining Industry Protection Focus

3 August 2011 FDI Team


In an example of Australia’s increasing awareness of the importance of the central and north-west of this country, the ADF has announced a force structure review with a focus on onshore mining and offshore oil and gas infrastructure and operations. It includes a shift in defence strategy towards the Indian Ocean’s vital sea-lines of communication and choke points close to Australia.


In geopolitical terms, the review recognises Indian and Chinese ambitions to “manage” the Indian Ocean. The Indo-Pacific route is not just about trade, including Australia’s, but possible disruptions; best illustrated currently in India’s force projection and China’s acquisition of interests in littoral ports. Australia’s bilateral relations, particularly with India, still have to overcome some major problems, but are of high strategic importance in an Indian Ocean context. Such scenarios must also include the maritime aims of other Indian Ocean users, including, for example, West African nations, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. There are implications also for long-term Australian coastal security and trans-ocean transport.

Australia’s force posture review, an overdue upgrade of the 1988 Two-Ocean Policy, will involve naval and defence acquisitions more widely in Western Australia, in addition to HMAS Stirling, long in use as a naval base, and the existing air bases in the north-west. The growing demands to secure the lengthy coast-line’s significant oil and gas ventures, extending from Geraldton to Karratha, the Pilbara and beyond, are recognised in Canberra and endorsed in Perth. The calls for Western Australia to become the defence front line extend beyond the oil, gas and minerals industries, to include escalation of competition in the Indian Ocean, border security, and humanitarian and natural disaster relief, where the ADF has a vital responsibility.

Inevitably the United States has been drawn in at a new level. Extending US bases and activities in this country remains on the AusMIN agenda for its September meeting. One aim is to strengthen each country’s presence in the Indian Ocean, others include deterrence and surveillance that, as recognised during the Cold War, provided intelligence on the Russian naval presence to our west. The North West Cape base, for example, was integral to American communications with its Indian Ocean Polaris submarine fleet, engaging Australia in Indian Ocean security, albeit at arms length.

Support for US bases in this country is not news. It developed from the 1960s when America articulated a shift in its relations with Australia, acknowledging it as a geopolitical asset. The relationship struck bottom politically in the early 1970s but revived at the end of that decade with Australia’s recommitment to proving its status as an ally. That determination has not faltered. National interest was, and is, served by the presence of an allied superpower navy and its support systems – however, we have not yet had a public debate on the development of naval bases in Western Australia that may be visited by nuclear-powered ships.

A new Australian force structure that combines protection of Australia’s mineral, oil and gas industries with other strategic objectives, whether perceived as in conjunction with an alliance partner, or as a series of bilateral agreements, contributes to regional security and Australia’s vital export interests. 

Auriol Weigold

FDI Associate

Indian Ocean Research Programme

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