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The trade routes vital to Australia’s economic security Banner

The trade routes vital to Australia’s economic security

By David Uren

A recurrent theme in Australia’s defence strategy has been our reliance on and need to defend Australia’s trade routes in a globalised world. The vulnerability of Australia’s limited stockpiles of critical goods and its concentrated sources of supply have driven military capability and planning for decades and remain a justification for strategic investments.

The 2023 Defence Strategic Review argued that the danger of any power threatening to invade the Australian continent was remote, but that an adversary could implement military coercion at a distance with threats against our trade and supply routes. With limited resources and finite defence capability, yet vast interests at sea, it’s important that Australian security and economic planning is trained on the most critical pain points in our sea lines of communication. Strategy and planning must derive from up-to-date and accurate data about what we trade, via which routes, and to and from which specific locations.

We also need to understand the factors that contribute to our resilience. They include the depth of supply options, the availability of alternative routes and the sheer strength in numbers which our shipping enjoys when it enters the mighty flow of commerce through the waters of our Asian trading partners. This report explores our trading routes in peace-time. Any conflict would bring sharper focus on what shipping and what trade is truly necessary and on what can be done to secure it. However, the strengths and vulnerabilities of our linkages to the world are evident now and are the focus of this report.

Concerns have been sharpened by the assaults by Houthi militias on commercial shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, disrupting the 12% of global trade that passes through those waters.2 In addition, drought has slashed the capacity of the Panama Canal, which in normal seasons handles a further 5% of world trade.

Surprisingly, the course and operation (who is moving what) of Australia’s trade routes has received extraordinarily little analysis. The last significant public paper on the topic was conducted by the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (now the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics, BITRE) in 2007 and was based on data from 2001 to 2004. The profile of Australia’s trade has changed radically since then. This report makes five key policy recommendations and the first of these is that the government fund BITRE to update its 2007 study of trade routes so that Defence can make assessments of how best to secure Australia’s trade routes.

A dangerous combination of complacency and tolerance could be born of a view that conflicts are in faraway locations. The reality is that few saw either of the current wars as imminent when they started, and we mustn’t make the same mistake in our region. A central finding in this report is that the greatest risk to the security of our trade routes lies relatively close to home, in the narrow channels through the Indonesian archipelago through which more than half Australia’s maritime trade must pass. Another strong conclusion is that trade has a surprising resilience in the face of conflict: it is important to understand the sources of that strength and develop plans to maximise it.