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Australia’s second sea: Facing our multipolar future in the Indian Ocean

By David Brewster

This report argues that Australia needs a comprehensive strategy for the Indian Ocean that articulates our regional objectives and outlines a whole-of-government approach to the challenges and opportunities presented by the region.

Australia is a major Indian Ocean state. We have by far the longest coastline and by far the largest area of maritime jurisdiction of any country in the region. In one way or another, Australia relies on the Indian Ocean for much of its wealth.

But despite the magnitude of its interests, Australia tends to see itself as an Indian Ocean state only in a secondary sense—literally, the Indian Ocean is Australia’s second sea. We’ve long seen ourselves as principally a Pacific Ocean state, reflecting our history and demography. Most Australians have probably only seen the Indian Ocean out of the window of a plane, en route to a holiday in Bali or Europe.

But it’s no longer ‘business as usual’ in the Indian Ocean. It’s clear that the region has a much more multipolar future that will require Australia to take a much more active role. We can no longer afford to just ‘muddle through’. Priorities remain unprioritised, potential threats might not be properly planned for, and opportunities are unpursued. As this report details, there are compelling reasons why Australia must pursue a more clear and coherent approach towards the Indian Ocean as part of an integrated Indo-Pacific strategy.