1st Person : Kym Beazley
In one of his last interviews before his departure to take up his position as Australia’s Ambassador to the US, former Defence Minister Kim Beazley talks to APDR’s Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean to Australia’s national interests.
“There was a big debate in the late 1940s early 1950s whether the Australian commitment to the Western alliance would be a Middle East commitment or a Southeast Asian commitment and there was constant tension between the two. Fundamentally in the Middle East and in Asia generally, we were supporting Western Imperial positions. Independent Australian initiatives were not many; the Colombo Plan would be the nearest thing to it. So our policy in the Indian Ocean Region and in the Far East was a policy largely related to what Britain or the US was doing. We didn’t really start to think these things through for ourselves until the 1960s as it became increasingly obvious that the British were pulling out east of the Suez and the US position was problematic.
“Hence, the Indian Ocean re-rose to prominence in Australian strategic calculations starting in the late 1960’s. It’s first dramatic manifestation, was when the Foreign Minister of the day, Gordon Freeth, who was then also the Liberal Member for Forrest, Western Australia, looking at early reports of Soviet shipping moving through the Indian Ocean (establishing anchorages in the Red Sea area and the like) stated that this was pretty minimal and not to be worried about. The Democratic Labour Party decided that such a slippage in traditional liberal anti-Communism had to be seriously punished and they uniquely extended preferences to the Labor Party in the 1969 election, which led to Freeth’s defeat.
“In the 1970’s there was a slow but steady build up of Soviet and US naval activity in the Indian Ocean and, as a result, the region was being drawn into Cold War calculations. This increasingly excited the Australian academic community who wrote a great deal on it; it excited me and I wrote something on it too. Aptly, there were several types of responses. Firstly, was the Indian Ocean a strategic entity? Secondly, did we have to have an Indian Ocean policy per se? Thirdly, was the Indian Ocean merely a transmission belt or thoroughfare or was the situation in different parts of the littoral important to us? Last and most critically, what was really drawing the external powers to the Indian Ocean region? Was it the significance of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, where there were serious interests that arose from its importance in world energy supplies and its instability?
Indian Ocean Peace Zone
“There was another layer of activity going on, and that was the view that the Indian Ocean was a strategic entity in itself and should not be automatically drawn into the vortex of the super-power conflict. The thinking went that we should do something about it by proposing an Indian Ocean Peace Zone. With the relatively low level of interest by the super-powers, it had a chance of success. So for a long time in the 1970s and 1980s, on the table at the United Nations for regular discussion each year, was a proposal for an Indian Ocean Peace Zone. Australia sometimes ran that quite hard and ran it a bit harder when the Labor Party was elected, but it was there for continual discussion. I think in the Cold War era Australia’s relationships with countries in South Asia were undermined by the fact that they tended to take Third World neutralist positions, which basically diminished Australian interest. When we were turning to Asia, that meant South East Asia, it meant Japan, China and Korea. The two other countries that mattered to us a great deal were of course Malaysia and Singapore, hence the Five Power Defence Arrangement and so on.
“We were at a point when the Labor Party was elected to office in 1983, where I suppose you could characterize our position as: Firstly, we noted that the Indian Ocean was now an area of more intense super-power competition. Secondly, we were fascinated by nuclear-free zones, peace zones and that sort of thing as a dimension of our foreign policy - though we were always mindful of US interests while pursuing them. We knew that even with a focus on the Arabian Sea it was a somewhat lesser concern than the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans and the United States perhaps saw some value in continuing a conversation on the peace zone proposal. Thirdly, probably running somewhat counter to that, as we sat down and thought through the issues of defence self reliance, it became increasingly obvious to us that if we are going to defend all Australian approaches, we have to defend the approaches of the north and west as well as the east.
“The growing superpower focus on the region, which was a logical result of the experience of the 1973 Oil Embargo, and then the increasingly active contest between the Soviet Union and the US for influence in the littoral countries in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, basically meant that things like peace zones went off the boil. From the Australian point of view, one controversial foray you might say after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the request from the US for gestures around the globe of hostility. The Fraser government decided they would regularly deploy Australian naval units in the Arabian Sea. Jimmy Carter had briefly invited Australia to consider the possibility of being part of a ready reaction force, but Australia did not endorse the idea.
“In many ways these are all contradictory positions, but they do have one underlying theme, that is, drawing us into the Indian Ocean more intensively, contemplating this as a strategic zone, or thinking about aspects of its strategic significance and its various parts. What all this did was to create in Australia a thorough understanding that we had two coasts and that we are a player in Pacific politics and also a player in Indian Ocean politics. We needed to comprehend that in the way we did our defence planning and the way we conducted our foreign policy. It’s always been difficult to discern why there has been such a vacuum over the years in Indian Ocean policy in Australia, because it is clearly a vital link with Britain and the rest of the world.
Two Ocean Navy
“This dramatically manifested itself in government policy in two ways when I actually became Defence Minister. The idea of a Two Ocean Navy, in which the Indian Ocean was perceived as the logical point at which we ought to develop our naval capabilities; particularly the deployment of submarines as it’s a much more sensible place than it is on the east coast in defending our approaches, which tend to be in a north-westerly direction, at least as much Indian Ocean as they are Pacific. We sought to explain to the US how important the Australian contribution was to the Western alliance, even though we were pursuing a policy of defence self reliance. The one thing we drew as an example to the Americans of how an Australian independent capability would serve Western interests and, therefore, they ought not to be offended was the Soviet naval presence at Camranh Bay, Vietnam. The US now talks of a ‘string of pearls’, but the Soviets sort of had a ‘string of pearls’. At that point of time, the eastern extension of the string was Camranh Bay; which was their biggest base in terms of Soviet facilities immediately adjacent to the Indian Ocean and Australia.
“The commitment we had to the Five Power Defence Arrangement, and more particularly, the rights of access to the Malaysian airfield at Butterworth, gave us an important role in countering the Soviet presence. So we ran Operation Gateway, which was regular P3 flights basically monitoring Soviet shipping and providing a substantial amount of intelligence on their activities in the region. The Indian Ocean, at least in its constituent parts, featured considerably in our policy at the time and it was a comprehension about the Two Ocean Navy policy which entailed an Indian Ocean component. What dropped away while we were in office was the Indian Ocean Peace Zone. As the Cold War wound down, people lost interest in it.
“Basically we involved ourselves in the Persian Gulf because the United States was engaged there. The start really of our commitment to the Gulf was not the Kuwait War but the Tanker War in 1987. During the 1980s Iraq and Iran were fighting a pretty nasty war, and by 1987 the war was focussing on tankers in the Gulf. Iran was attacking shipping and tankers going back and forth, and Australian shipping there was benefitting from protection from the British and the US. When the US indicated that they were willing to formally ask us to get involved; we decided that we would do something. We considered a series of propositions and in the end we committed RAN clearance divers to engage in countermining as that was the major weakness in the US posture. The Iranians were shooting rockets at ships going through the Gulf and they were floating mines as well. Hence, there was a counter-mining requirement as well as a sort of defensive requirement against rockets, which is what we decided to do at that point. Even after the Tanker War what remained constant was the immense importance of energy supplies from the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s attack on Kuwait drew us in again basically because we discerned an Australian interest in ensuring that Iraq (or Iran for that matter), did not destabilize that focal point of essential energy supplies to our trading partners, and to the West generally.
“The Defence White Paper was also brought down in 1987. What we did was take the Cockburn Sound base, or HMAS Stirling, which was originally developed by Whitlam and Fraser and announced in the time of the McMahon government, and converted it into a full-blown naval base. We anticipated that the bulk of Australian submarine operations would be operating from it. Given that our submarines are normally expected to be deployed in Southeast Asian waters, I think the submarines’ capacity to spend time on the station was improved by about 25% by being deployed from HMAS Stirling, rather than Sydney. So when I was explaining the White Paper to the US in 1987, I not only talked about the Persian Gulf, but I also talked about the contribution we made countering the Soviet presence in Camranh Bay, which was our contribution to the Western alliance. But within a couple of months of the White Paper coming out, the US was suddenly engaged in the Tanker War. That was really a critical point as really from that point on the US has been more or less on the verge of or permanently engaged in war fighting in the Persian Gulf region and its hinterland.
From Hawke to Rudd
“When I was Defence Minister, there was a immense Caucus focus on what I was doing but not much of a government focus. Hawke’s style of government was to give immense authority to ministers. So basically the first time the cabinet saw my White Paper was when I presented it, whereas the 2009 Defence White Paper went through repeated iterations at the National Security Committee of Cabinet and it’s been much more a product of management by Kevin Rudd.
“Actually Kevin Rudd’s management is what brought the Indian Ocean to the White Paper. There’s an interesting story. The White Paper strategic component was largely completed in 2008, but just before it was ready for production, Kevin Rudd had it re-committed (the strategic end of it) and incorporated within it a very strong paragraph of the Indian Ocean and our commitment to it. I think that reflected his geo-political perspective. He sat down and seriously thought about where his Asia-Pacific initiative was going and where the direction of geo-politics was moving. The White Paper, without a serious analysis of the Indian Ocean Region would be incomplete and maybe dated. So it was quite an interesting development that I think reflects his quite substantial enthusiasm for good relationships with countries in South Asia and a serious thinking-though of our strategic interests in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, Islam is basically an Indian Ocean phenomenon and so the sorting out of what Islam needs is something of the Indian Ocean political activity. Presently, these are two big generators of global focus; the economy and Islam. If you take a very broad view, excessively broad some would say, about the hinterland, pretty well all of Islam is in the Indian Ocean or its hinterland such as the Middle East, East Africa, the Gulf, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and, of course, Indonesia, which is the biggest Islamic nation in the world.
“In the long-term the Indian Ocean is going to be massively more significant in global politics than it has ever been before and that is the function largely of the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is massively more significant. The Asia-Pacific region covers both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean littoral’s northern extension. Energy security and resources are absolutely critical. The Indian Ocean region is immensely rich in that and therefore all developing societies need access to the new material produced around the Indian Ocean littoral. So these are now becoming vitally strategic trade routes. For big powers like the US and China, its actually an easy game to play. Certainly the Persian Gulf and Iran is hard, but the Indian Ocean generally is not as challenging as we get full value from our maritime capability, which can is very easily extended, withdrawn and enhanced.
Vision as Ambassador to the US
“I hope to see that the Australian initiatives, which require American support, get up. The biggest from Kevin Rudd’s point of view is the idea of an Asia-Pacific entity. That is being actively pursued by the Australian government and that will be one of my priorities. Furthermore, Kevin Rudd has successfully engaged the US on Climate Change issues and advancing that agenda is going to be particularly important to me. Also, this is the year in which we give Weapons of Mass Destruction removal our best shot. If we’re going to have an effective non-proliferation regime that will largely be obvious or not, as a product of the conferences that are going to be held in Washington in March, and the outcome of discussions of the potential Iranian weapon.