Unprecedented threats facing the Indian Ocean are just as serious as those confronting Pacific nations, with regional security, climate change, and humanitarian issues causing major concern, Australia’s foreign minister says.
Penny Wong put a spotlight on issues in the vast waters to Australia’s west during a speech at the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth on Friday.
Some 400 delegates from 34 countries gathered for the conference, including Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Prosperity and peace were being challenged by a heightened risk of conflict over flare-ups and rising tensions in disputed areas, Wong said.
Expanding military powers are taking a greater interest in the region, the foreign minister said, singling 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, saying there must be new ways to protect against miscalculation or accidents.
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 was 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 capacity to assist nations to restore 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.