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Australia's Strategic Navigation of the Red Sea

Grace McClenahan | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

USS Carney engages Houthi missiles. Image credit: Aaron Lau via Wikimedia Commons.

Australia's recent refusal of the United States (US) request for warships to the Red Sea to counter Houthi rebel attacks has sparked considerable debate. Since mid-November 2023, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels' aggression in this crucial maritime corridor has prompted the international community to take collective action to safeguard cargo and ensure the free flow of trade. In the context of the continuing Israel-Gaza crisis, the Red Sea has become a focal point of global concern due to the escalating attacks by Houthi rebels on commercial vessels. The Houthi rebels have become a destabilising force in the region, necessitating a coordinated response from the international community.

Australia's initial response in December was to sign a joint statement by 44 countries condemning the attacks. This was reiterated in a joint statement released on 4 January with the governments of the US, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK.

The US responded firmly in December 2023, establishing Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational coalition formed to respond to the rebels' attacks. The coalition currently has more than 20 members, including the UK, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, and Spain. Not long after the establishment of the operation, the US, one of Australia's most critical and historical allies, requested that it send a warship to the Red Sea as a show of support.

Australia, as an ally to many of the coalition's members and a maritime nation dependent on sea lines of communication and maritime trade, was expected to comply with the US’s request. However, the call was officially denied by Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who confirmed that the government would instead increase the number of Australian maritime forces staffed in Bahrain from five to ten and deploy up to six navy personnel to assist the US-led operation.

The decision by the Albanese government led to swift criticism from the Opposition, with Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley calling the government's "slow" response to the request an "international embarrassment". However, the Albanese government has supported their decision with the rationale that its strategic focus is our region, the northeast Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Pacific. This aligns with the most recent Defence Strategic Review, released in April 2023. Indeed, despite the Opposition's criticisms, this decision is not dissimilar from their own military stance. In 2020, then Defence Minister Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC announced a focus on the Indo-Pacific region as part of the Morrison Government's defence commitments.

Although Australia has not provided warships, Albanese's joint statement on 12 January with the governments of Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, and the United States, expressed support for US and UK air strikes against targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. By not directly participating in the joint strikes but expressing support for its allies, Australia demonstrated a focus on contributing diplomatically rather than militarily. This has allowed Australia to collaborate with other nations to find diplomatic solutions, reinforcing the importance of collective action in addressing shared security concerns. 

The joint statement on 12 January cited an inherent right of individual and collective self-defence as the justification for these air strikes. However, on first glance, it appears that Australia and its allies do not have an inherent right of individual and collective self-defence against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. These attacks are not occurring on its land or in the sea passages, or that of of its allies. Furthermore, Yemen has not requested assistance in defending against attacks by the Houthis.

Despite this, the most recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution supports the US's right to carry out these recent strikes, noting that Member States have the right to “defend their vessels from attacks” under international law. The US Central command has reported attacks on US-owned ships, despite Houthi rebels stating that their attacks only target Israeli ships or ships headed towards Israel. It has not been confirmed whether these US ships were headed for Israel, but regardless, under international law, the US still retains the right to defend against attacks on its ships.

Following the UNSC decision, Deputy Minister Marles confirmed that Australian military personnel had been present in “operational headquarters” during the strikes but did not provide further information about its participation. Although the precise nature of Australia's participation in the strikes has not yet been clarified, Australia remains actively engaged in diplomatic dialogues with key stakeholders, including regional powers, international organisations, and affected nations.

Australia's decision not to deploy a warship and instead provide military personnel reflects a careful assessment of the risks and benefits associated with military involvement in the Middle East. The current Israel-Gaza conflict and the consequent Red Sea attacks reflect delicate geopolitical dynamics. They involve multiple actors with divergent interests, which has fostered a complex and volatile environment. By abstaining from direct military intervention, Australia aims to avoid being drawn into local conflicts and maintain a neutral stance that allows for continued diplomatic engagement.

While this approach is consistent with Australia’s pragmatic foreign policy approach, it may have implications for its standing in regional and global affairs. On one hand, critics may argue that a more assertive military posture could enhance Australia's influence in the region and bolster its image as a security provider. Indeed, many contend that this decision may jeopardise relations between Australia and the US, although has been denied by Albanese. On the other hand, supporters of the diplomatic approach, including Albanese, assert that sustained engagement and collaboration are more likely to yield durable solutions.

The complexity of the conflict involving the Houthi rebels, coupled with broader regional tensions, require a nuanced and diplomatic approach. This situation is constantly evolving, and new developments will ideally allow Australia to meaningfully contribute to its resolution.

Grace McClenahan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

She holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in International Relations) from Macquarie University. Grace has also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice and was admitted as a lawyer in 2023. She is currently studying a Master of Laws at the Australian National University.


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