South West Pacific Heads of Maritime Forces Meeting

16 Aug 2023

Thanks to Police Commissioner Aupaau Logoitino FILIPO for welcoming us so warmly and hosting the SWPHMFs delegation in SAMOA in 2023 – the sixth year of this important event. It’s an honour to be here in beautiful Samoa amongst friends and partners. As a naval Officer, there is something special about being on land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean – a blue continent indeed.

Like all of the nations present today, Australia is an island nation, dependant on the ocean for our security and economic wellbeing. However, as the Pacific Ocean - our ocean - is the largest water mass on the planet, covering over 30% of the Earth’s surface - partnership and coordination in the maritime domain are key to our collective success. Our shared futures are tightly linked to the stability and prosperity of this region, and our prosperity is dependent on peaceful, mutually beneficial interactions between nations, shaped by rules and cooperation, not coercion.

Billions of people across the world rely upon the natural resources drawn from or transported on the oceans for their livelihoods and for their future – boundless and imperishable, the seas are truly the source of all things. It is easy to forget that unseen in the depths of the oceans lie the data cables which are the arteries and veins pumping and transferring information which animates the modern world. Safe and secure shipping lanes; intact underwater sea cables and sub-surface pipelines; are the arteries fuelling economic prosperity and political stability across the Pacific region. And it has been thus for nearly 80 years.

All of our economies have become more interconnected with the wider world coupled with decades of development and economic growth. In Australia, maritime trade accounts for over 99% of our imports & exports by volume, while we produce only 22% of our petroleum products from our own reserves. Consequently, Australia has a fundamental interest in protecting its connection to the world and in the global rules-based order upon which free and equitable international trade depends.

Australia is not alone in this complex web of interconnection, bound by the sea. it is a shared, Pacific experience. For Pacific nations, it is not just our connections by sea that matter. While Australia has the world’s third largest EEZ, 15% of the world’s total, our 17 Pacific island neighbours who form the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agencies together have a jurisdiction over 28% of the world’s total EEZ area. In this vast expanse, we face an environment with less natural resources, increased competition for what is remaining and illegality on the seas, including unreported and unregulated fishing.

For Australia and our Pacific neighbours, protecting our valuable maritime resources is a problem of scale, one which covers almost half the world’s oceans, a task that none of us can do on our own. Australia may have a vast landscape but we are not a big nation. So, we, like many of you, rely on the good order at sea to protect our connections; for our security and economic wellbeing. To overcome the scale of our maritime jurisdiction, we need to work with our partners and friends to ensure the fairness, freedom and security of the seas on which we all rely.

In addition to scale, we are all feeling the effects of climate change. The Australian Navy has responded to bushfires, hurricanes, cyclones and other natural disasters with frequency, of late. As a Samoan proverb I read goes, and I think I am saying this right: ‘when it is felt toward the sea, it is felt toward the land (a logo tai ua logo uta)’.

The backdrop to these challenges is the maritime domain is being reshaped by forces beyond our control, leading to a challenging strategic environment. The Indo Pacific is now home to the largest military build-up anywhere in the world in the last 70 years. We all have an interest in a stable, prosperous region, where nations’ actions are constrained and enhanced by mutual respect and adherence to rules. The burning questions on my mind are: how do we ensure that our fate is not determined by others; that each of our nation’s decisions are our own; and how do each of us protect our ways of life, our prosperity, our institutions and our economy? I am confident that the answer to those questions is together, as partners.

We seek to safeguard our interests, and to help safeguard the interests of our Pacific partners. In this endeavour, Australia deploys all elements of our national power to shape an open, stable and prosperous region; a predictable region, operating by agreed rules and standards, where sovereignty is respected. Australia also continues to be a proud member of the Treaty of Rarotonga. This is how Australia contributes to keeping the peace in our region; by creating opportunities for partnership and coordination; while resisting countries that may wish to unilaterally alter the status quo against our collective interests. In short, we are united in many of our challenges, but together we are strong working as partners and friends.

Australia’s Defence Strategic Review carefully examined our strategic circumstances - which many of us in the room share - and provided recommendations to maximise Australia’s deterrence, denial and response options across all domains. Importantly, the review acknowledged the pivotal role of our diplomatic and defence partnerships with our Pacific partners as integral to the ongoing security and prosperity in our region. I find this quite fitting as an Australian standing here in Samoa today as our two countries approach our 52nd year of strong, productive bilateral partnership.

In the maritime domain, the Defence Strategic Review found that our Navy must have enhanced lethality including through its surface fleet and conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines – not, I must reiterate, nuclear armed submarines - underpinned by a continuous naval shipbuilding program. Our program to develop this capability has already begun, and we will be hosting submarines from our partner nations, some with Australian sailors embarked, almost immediately.

Our Government is investing in capabilities which would hold the forces of those who would threaten or coerce us at greater distance, such as upgrading our existing and future surface combatants with long range guided weapons. These capabilities are designed not to promote but to prevent instability in our Pacific. We are a peaceful middle power in a region beset by challenges, our aim is to change the calculus so no potential aggressor can ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks. We invest in these forces with the sincere hope they will help us preserve the peace and prosperity of our region, so that our shared future is bright and full of hope.

As US Navy historian CDRE Dudley Knox stated: navies exist “not to make war but to preserve peace, not to be predatory but to shield the free development of commerce, not to unsettle the world but to stabilize it through the promotion of law and order”.