‘Girt by Sea: Re-imagining Australia’s Security Policy’ & ‘Understanding Maritime Security’

Girt by Sea: Re-imagining Australia’s Security Policy by Rebecca Strating and Joanne Wallis, La Trobe University Press, 2024. Understanding Maritime Security by Christian Bueger and Timothy Edwards, Oxford University Press, 2024.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

Largely because of our lack of a maritime culture, insular attitudes and failure to see Australia as a maritime power, we’ve so far failed in our defence and foreign policies to fully comprehend the security significance of the oceans. For Australia, almost everything to do with the oceans has a strategic dimension.  We’re a three-ocean country with a large stake in the management and security of the Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans, as well as the seas lying to our north—the Timor, Arafura and Coral seas. 

Geographically, we’re potentially an oceanic superpower with one of the largest areas of maritime jurisdiction in the world. This is vitally important to our future prosperity and security. Managing our large maritime domain and ensuring our future maritime security are great challenges for Australia—they are complex, whole-of-government problems that won’t be solved by traditional approaches. 

This is all well understood in a new book, Girt by Sea, by Australian scholars Rebecca Strating and Joanne Wallis, who rightly emphasise the maritime nature of Australia’s Indo-Pacific neighbourhood as they explore what a less siloed approach to our strategic policy would look like. 

The authors examine our northern approaches, the Western Pacific, South China Sea, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and most usefully our neglected maritime space, the Southern Ocean. The book looks at both civil maritime security as well as traditional state-based threats. It examines our current approach to each ocean and sea and offers ideas on how we could do things differently.

There are a few errors in the book. There are three not four Pacific countries that recognise Taiwan; the inspirational former leader of Malaita Province in Solomon Islands is Daniel, (not Derek) Suidani; it’s misleading to question the legal basis of Heard and McDonald Island to an EEZ ( the International Tribunal on the Law of Sea considered this in the Volga case and found 20-1 that Heard  and McDonald Islands generate an EEZ); and it’s wrong to say that Australia believes Antarctica is the “common heritage of mankind” (there are sovereign claims there, with ours the largest).

The authors suggest we could cooperate with China in certain circumstances in the South Pacific. That’s not realistic. Foreign Minister Wong recently noted that we’re in a state of “permanent contest” in the Pacific. While it’s always been the case that we needed to accept that China had some role in the Pacific, it was China under Xi that chose to make this a strategic issue.

Girt by Sea is, however, a very valuable book in highlighting how the oceans should figure prominently in Australian strategic thinking, and how we’ve failed to fully grasp their strategic significance, especially how the oceans offer us great potential to apply soft power and creative diplomacy. I liked the suggestion we have an integrated maritime strategy that brings in the naval dimensions alongside our 2022 civil maritime security strategy, (although curiously there’s no discussion of naval documents like the 2010 Australian Maritime Doctrine, the 2017 Australian Maritime Operations, Plan Mercator or Plan Pelorus.)

The book has some sensible ideas on helping regional countries build their capacity to manage and protect their maritime interests. A key theme is the need to work actively with our neighbours to promote a stable regional environment that addresses shared maritime concerns. That will help prevent the emergence of threats to Australia’s future prosperity and our security. 

The second book, Understanding Maritime Security is written by two noted European maritime thinkers, Christian Bueger and Timothy Edmunds. It’s a fascinating and clear study drawing on a range of readable case studies from across the world looking at issues from inter-state disputes, grey zone tactics terrorism, piracy, smuggling, and illicit fishing.  I especially enjoyed their discussion of the case of the Thunder fishing vessel involved in IUU fishing in Antarctic waters, the longest hot pursuit case ever, where Australia was a key player.

The reader is taken through what the authors call the toolkit of maritime security solutions, including operations, different strategies, maritime domain awareness, and maritime capacity building. It’s a forward-looking work examining issues from critical maritime infrastructures, submarine cables and the impacts of climate change on maritime security. I especially liked the chapter “The Who’s Who of Maritime Security” that sets out the extraordinary range of national actors involved in maritime security, (as well as lots of international organisations).  The book offers different visions on how the oceans should be governed 

This monograph is really a must-read one stop shop in gaining a coherent understanding of the full range of security issues at sea and their solutions. It is by far the best source to gain an overall analytical framework to understand maritime security.

Anthony Bergin is a Senior Fellow at SAA.