International relations, National security | South Asia, Australia, Asia

29 August 2018

Australia needs a regional networking strategy for the Bay of Bengal. This can be achieved at a relatively modest cost, David Brewster writes.

Australia’s Quad partners – Japan, India and the United States – are substantially increasing their commitment to security cooperation in Australia’s near neighbourhood in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

Australia, too, needs to pursue an engagement strategy in the Bay of Bengal that recognises the fact that countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have a strategic importance to Australia similar to that of many ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) states.

The Bay of Bengal region, which includes countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Maldives, is a place of both enormous economic opportunity but also many security concerns.

Many of these threats are in the maritime realm, including unregulated population movements, drug and arms smuggling and piracy. Some of these can have a big impact on Australia. On top of this is growing strategic competition, as China and others jostle for influence over countries that can be vulnerable to foreign influence.

More on this: Tokyo discovers the Indo-Pacific

As the situation intensifies, the Bay of Bengal is a region that we’re going to hear a lot more about in coming years.

Japan is significantly ramping up its engagement in the Bay. Over the last decade, the Japanese navy has, for example, made some 65 port visits to Sri Lanka, second only to the Indian navy. Only last week, Tokyo announced the donation of coast guard vessels to Sri Lanka, on top of more assistance given to Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Japan’s military assistance complements a massive US $200 billion commitment to build infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific, providing countries with alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative on less onerous terms. This includes several major projects in the Bay of Bengal that compete with Chinese proposals.

Washington has also realised the region’s importance. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a US $300 million package to help build the maritime security capabilities of Indo-Pacific partners. This includes a specific Bay of Bengal initiative focused on providing equipment to strengthen the maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Australia can also play an important role in the region by playing to its strengths. Many countries welcome Australia as a useful friend that comes without the historical baggage.

Sri Lanka may be the key for Australia’s regional relationships. It’s a democracy with among the best social indicators in South Asia, and potentially good economic prospects. But at the moment, it also needs friends.

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Sri Lanka has big ambitions to transform itself into an Indian Ocean hub on the Singapore model, using its shipping industry as an entry point for services such as maintenance, logistics, finance, and law. If this goes to plan, Sri Lanka could become a major regional offshore centre and a more significant player in the Indian Ocean.

The current relationship is good. Several years ago, Australia donated two patrol boats to Sri Lanka, jump-starting a security partnership that successfully halted people smuggling and threats such as drug smuggling.

But Australia’s engagement with Sri Lanka and other countries in the Bay of Bengal now needs to be expanded. This will require a multi-agency strategy led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Australian Border Force (ABF).

As a starting point, the RAN should increase the regularity of its presence in the Bay as part of an expanded commitment to work with the Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladesh navies. This may require redeployment of resources from the western Indian Ocean. We should not underestimate the psychological effect of the regular presence of Australian warships in our partners’ harbours.

But the ABF also has a big part to play. Navy ‘grey hulls’ are a great way to make a statement, but the so-called ‘white hulls’ of coast guard agencies are very useful in flying under the radar of political sensitivities.

More on this: What the US gets wrong – and India gets right – about the Indo-Pacific

The ABF is already actively engaged in the region with training activities and visits (including a visit of the ABFC Ocean Shield to Sri Lanka and India last year), but its immediate border protection activities always have priority. This means a commitment of additional resources for regional engagement.

In fact, the ABF can achieve a lot with relatively little. One of the biggest contributions that Australia could make to regional security is in building MDA. The importance of regional cooperation in MDA was expressly highlighted in the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper, but little has been done so far.

It is also something that Australia has a competitive advantage in. Australia’s MDA system is the best in the region, and the country has a lot of know-how to offer. Australia could make a big impact in providing training and advice to partners such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to help build integrated national MDA systems that make much better use of the information that is already available. This could include using Australian companies, some of which have world-class expertise in this field.

A lot could be achieved at a relatively modest cost.

Australia could also work with Sri Lanka to establish a node for the provision of training to assist Sri Lanka, and potentially also neighbouring countries. This could include law enforcement, counter-terrorism and maritime security-related training by the ABF, Australian Federal Police and other relevant agencies. This could buy a lot of relationships and goodwill, again at a relatively low cost.

These are just some ways that Australia can play to its strengths. These and similar initiatives could be an important part of a networking strategy that helps protect Australia’s interests in the region alongside our Quad partners.

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