Penny Wong says transparency needed to avoid ‘unprecedented threats’ in Indian Ocean

Key Points
  • Wong highlighted issues in the vast waters to Australia’s west at the Indian Ocean Conference.
  • Around 400 delegates from 34 countries took part in the event.
  • Wong singled out China’s rapid military build-up while advocating for greater transparency.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has warned against strategic “miscalculation” in the Indian Ocean, to avoid escalations and major disruptions to the world economy.
She said Pacific nations face equally serious challenges, with regional security, causing major concern.
Wong put a spotlight on issues in the vast waters to Australia’s west during a speech at the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth.
Some 400 delegates from 34 countries gathered for the conference, including Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Wong said prosperity and peace are being challenged by a heightened risk of conflict over flare-ups and rising tensions in disputed areas.

“There is much talk of the Indo-Pacific, [with] more emphasis to the second half of that compound term,” she said.
“The fact is that the same unprecedented threats that are faced on the Pacific Ocean side of the region are also faced on the Indian Ocean side.
“The prosperity, peace, and resilience we seek are being seriously challenged.

“As expanding military powers take a greater interest in our region, we each need to sharpen our focus, on what our interests are, and how to work together to uphold them.”

Calls for greater transparency to prevent conflict

The foreign minister singled out China’s rapid military build-up while advocating for greater transparency.

Wong highlighted a jump in military and commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean, now host to more than one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic.
“But with an increasing level of commercial and military passage through the Indian Ocean comes a greater need for transparency and reassurance,” she said.
“To guard against the risks of miscalculation and accident we see in other vital international waterways,” Wong said, referring to trade disruptions in the Red Sea due to Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacks.

The risk of military capabilities being used will be great without more active diplomacy, she said, warning research vessels are particularly vulnerable to becoming caught up in strategic plays.

Wong said there were few concrete mechanisms to avert military conflict, so Australia is seeking to contribute to the region’s strategic balance.
Changes are being sought so potential aggressors realise the benefits of conflict do not outweigh the risks.
The foreign minister also highlighted initiatives including a Marine and Coastal Resilience Hub focusing on climate change and sustainability research.
The CSIRO-led Blue Carbon Hub is scaling up its capacity to assist nations in restoring ecosystems in the region, she said.
‘Blue carbon’ ecosystems include seagrasses, mangroves and tidal marshes that have high quantities of organic carbon, according to the hub.

Wong’s comments come ahead of the ahead of the ASEAN-Australian Special Summit in Melbourne in March, with security expected to be high on the agenda.