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Girt by sea: Redrawing Australia’s mental map

Book Review: Girt by Sea: Re-Imagining Australia’s Security, by Rebecca Strating and Joanne Wallis (La Trobe Press, 2024)


It’s no secret that in recent years, there has been a sea-change in Australia’s perspectives about its security environment. From the rosy optimism of even a decade ago, we now face fast-paced change, with major wars in Europe and the Middle East and growing coercion from China in our neighbourhood.

This has involved redrawing our mental maps and identifying priorities in the face of ever-growing threats. Girt by Sea, by Australian academics, Rebecca Strating and Joanne Wallis, will be an important addition to this process.

Australia has responded to international challenges by enhancing its capabilities and partnerships. This has been accompanied by some important ideational developments – foremost among them in redefining our region from the “Asia Pacific” to the “Indo-Pacific”. The Indo-Pacific re-imagination has provided several benefits. It highlights the maritime nature of Australia’s neighbourhood, helps Australia adopt a more integrated strategy for the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and provides the underpinning of a new security partnership with India.

But the Indo-Pacific concept is not perfect and is still contested by many in Australia and elsewhere. It can be useful in understanding the dynamics of competition among major powers such as United States, China and India. But it can also be a blunt tool, obscuring important differences in security challenges faced in key regions around us.

Australia’s stance on where the Indo-Pacific begins and ends is also open to question, including the “invisible line” that is drawn down the middle of the Indian Ocean, excluding Australia from having a meaningful security role in its western half. The recent debates about Australia’s role in responding to attacks on shipping in the Red Sea shows how current conceptions of the Indo-Pacific may leave us vulnerable to a range of contingencies.

Girt by Sea, cover image

Girt by Sea provides valuable tools for the necessary process of re-imagining Australia’s maritime neighbourhood. It sets out an ambitious set of questions to be answered.

First, what would it look like if Australia were to move beyond a siloed approach to strategic and foreign policy?

Second, how could a more comprehensive and nuanced and contingent understanding of security opportunities and threats facing Australia reshape policymaking?

Third, how could Australia be confident in its strengths and ambitious, but humble about its limitations?

Fourth, could Australia be a determined player that pursues its national interest, while also being empathetic when its interests don’t neatly align with the interests of others?

Fifth, how could Australia lead when it needs to but work with others and follow their lead when appropriate?

And finally, how would Australia’s understanding of security change if it were to see Asian and Pacific states and actors from a more relational and situational perspective rather than a hierarchical one?

It is fair to say that Australia’s concept of the Indo-Pacific is useful for some purposes, but will need to evolve and be complemented by more nuanced understandings of the various sub-regions that make it up.

Girt by Sea poses great questions that must be answered if Australia is to reshape its regional relations and role to meet new threats. While the book doesn’t provide comprehensive answers for everything, it certainly makes a useful start.

Girt by Sea takes an unashamed maritime lens to Australia’s security challenges, examining one by one the different maritime spaces that surround or are in proximity to Australia: the northern approaches, the Western Pacific, South China Sea, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and Southern Ocean. Importantly, as is necessary in any study of the maritime domain, it takes a comprehensive approach to security, with a considerable emphasis on non-military aspects.

For each of these maritime spaces, the authors provide a brief but insightful potted history of the challenges, why it matters for Australia, the current policy approach, and thoughts on what Australia could be doing differently. This structure makes it a valuable guidebook for anyone that wants to delve easily into the complexities of the maritime spaces around us.

Girt by Sea has the potential to have a real impact on Australia’s understanding of its maritime environment. It’s a book that should become part of the debate on Australia’s strategic future.

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