Australia’s interests in the Middle East: A presence in search of a policy

by Allan Behm

At a superficial level, Australia’s interests in the Middle East seem to be little more than providing military ballast to support the imperial or global ambitions of great powers. It is for that reason that, for 80 of the past 100 years, Australia has maintained some form of defence presence in the Middle East. As recently as last August, the Australian government announced the deployment of a surveillance aircraft and a frigate to patrol the Strait of Hormuz. On 13 January 2020, HMAS Toowoomba departed on deployment to the Middle East.

The Middle East, however, has been a focal point of strategic competition for millennia. It remains so.  Accordingly, at a more substantial level, Australia has surprisingly extensive and subtle interests in the Middle East. As this paper argues, those interests fall into two major categories: at a minimum, avoidance of the strategic, political and economic consequences of great power, inter-state and intra-state military competition in the region, including nuclear competition; more importantly, as a nation enjoying considerable power and influence internationally, Australia has significant interests in building and working with the international coalitions that create, uphold and promote the international rules-based order on which our long-term prosperity and security depend.

This paper concludes that Australia’s strategic interests are more effectively achieved through an active and well-resourced bilateral and multilateral diplomacy than through tokenistic actions such as the deployment of small and ultimately inconsequential military forces.

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