Former WA governor Kim Beazley says China has turned the Indian Ocean into a “strategic system” and Australia must encourage India to fulfil its “enormous” potential military capability to bring “balance” to the region.
Mr Beazley, a former federal defence minister, said Australia could not contain or deny China’s rise as a “most potent player in the Indian Ocean” but it was possible to “compete with it”.
He told the Indian Ocean Defence and Security Conference that China had mirrored “the old empires” and now followed “exactly the lines of Japanese strategy in World War Two across the islands of the Indian Ocean to our north”.
The conference at Perth’s Optus Stadium was held just weeks after the Chinese government fired missiles into waters around Taiwan in the wake of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.
“China has turned the Indian Ocean into a strategic system. It’s their right to do so. It’s their right to establish trading positions,” Mr Beazley said.
“Can we contain this? Can we deny it? The answer to that is no. It is not possible to either contain it or deny it. What we can do is compete with it.”
The former deputy prime minister said a “very heavy set of expectations” fell on Australia, and in a system that required “balance”, the Indian Ocean power that most needed to be mobilised was India.
It’s immature to suggest that just because a country doesn’t share your values, it makes them your enemy.
“The Indian Ocean power we most need to see mobilised is India. It has enormous potential capability, it already has very substantial capabilities,” he continued.
“The question is what player we want the Indians to be. I would argue we need to present to them as vigorously as we can … the idea that they should be defenders of the international, liberal, global political order.”
Mr Beazley said the Chinese naval capability in the zone was “clearly quite immense”, as demonstrated by China’s involvement in the search for missing flight MH370 in 2014.
Mark McGowan, who was mentored by Mr Beazley, did not reference China by name during his 10-minute speech but did acknowledge the world was in an “era of great uncertainty and volatility”.
The Premier, who was critical of the former Morrison government’s rhetoric on China, said should Australia should not “sabre rattle” and “politicians should not build their profile by encouraging conflict and hostility between nations“.
“We need to be firm and protect our interests, but not be unnecessarily provocative,” he said.
“We need to understand some countries do not share all of our values. In fact, the overwhelming majority of countries don’t share our values.
“But that does not make them our enemies necessarily. It’s immature to suggest that just because a country doesn’t share your values, it makes them your enemy.”
Mr McGowan said it was a “no brainer” that WA should be home to additional Army and Air Force assets, though he did not believe that there was “any great likelihood that those resources would be called upon at short notice”.
“But if the question is: Given our nation’s capability and interests, where should our personnel and assets be placed? Surely serious consideration must be given to additional assets and personnel on the ground in Western Australia,” he added.
Defence Industries Minister Paul Papalia reiterated his call for a review of the Australian Defence Force, being conducted by retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston and another former defence minister, Stephen Smith, to recognise WA was “under defended”.
“We are the source of around 50 per cent of the nation’s export value, we are a third of the continent and we have very few assets, beyond naval assets, here. I think (the review) will identify that as a key gap in the defence forces posture,” he said.
“I hope it will (also) identify … we have these really incredible capabilities that could be applied to defending Australia or to our defence capability in a more direct way.
“Particularly in underwater warfare or underwater sensing and potentially warfighting environment, we could apply some of the technology we have in offshore oil and gas — we have world leaders in that field.”