By:Staff WriterColombo (LNW):Australia’s Defence Force is set to forge closer military ties with Sri Lanka and other countries in the north-east Indian Ocean, as the federal government weighs human rights concerns against urgent regional security fears.
Following the new Defence Strategic Review, published in abridged declassified form last week, the government is preparing to expand the longstanding Defence Cooperation Program beyond the Pacific, South-East Asia and south Asia, into countries on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
This expanded program is expected to include Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh – all of which have previously expressed a desire for more engagement.
It is also likely to entail a further broadening of ties with India, which is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, alongside Australia, Japan and the United States.
But the expansion will not include Myanmar, whose military overthrew the democratically elected government in 2021 and jailed its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Defence Cooperation Program involves conducting joint military exercises, training partner countries’ personnel, participating in exchanges and secondments, hosting visits, holding strategic dialogues and contributing infrastructure support. It can also involve engaging in military operations together.
Last year’s October budget showed the long-running program involved 13 countries in the Pacific, most substantially Papua New Guinea, and another eight in South-East Asia. It is understood to already also include Pakistan, though the country was not listed by name.
The Saturday Paper asked the Defence Department this week for a list of other countries in which the program operates, and the current expenditure in each. It declined to provide this information.
“Details of the Defence Cooperation Program will be published as part of the Defence Portfolio Budget Statement on Budget night next Tuesday,” the department said in a statement.
The October budget allocated the program just under $400 million, including $34.4 million across South-East Asia, $50 million for PNG and $126 million across the wider Pacific.
Another $670,000 was allocated to the Defence International Training Centre, at which some partner countries’ forces receive training in Australia.
Defence Minister Richard Marles would not say which countries will now be added, but confirmed the north-east Indian Ocean is an additional focus. Marles insisted human rights issues in partner countries had always been factored into the program’s operations.
“He emphasized that this was “within the context and the parameters” of those human rights considerations. “But clearly we need to be … deeply engaged in our region, and the north-eastern Indian Ocean is part of our region.”
The Defence Strategic Review does not specify which countries the program expansion should include. One of those who helped write the review document, Professor Peter Dean, of Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre, says those decisions are a matter for government.