Editorial: Issues for the Defence White Paperby Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
, July 1, 2000
Peter Westmore is the National President of the National Civic Council
The release of the Howard Government’s public discussion paper on Australia’s defence, as part of a consultation on the future Defence White Paper, comes at a time when recent events in East Timor, West Papua, Fiji and the Solomon Islands are forcing a major review of Australia’s defence and foreign policy.
A defence force structured to protect continental Australia, or to play a role in regional conflict in conjunction with the United States, is ill-equipped to deal with the likely contingencies which will face Australia in the years ahead.
Last year’s events in East Timor show that Australia exists in a strategically unstable region, on the edge of what may well be the economic centre of the world in 50 years time, astride one of the world’s most important trade routes.
What is clear is that the “inner rim” of nations — from Indonesia to Australia’s north, through Papua New Guinea, and into the Pacific Islands — is now plagued by instability.
It should be said that the Federal Government’s response to the Timor crisis last year was outstanding.
Despite the risks, and criticism from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Howard Government set in motion a major international initiative fully in accordance with the principle of self-reliance in foreign policy.
Australia’s intervention made a major contribution to solving the Timor crisis — although there was a price in terms of relations with our largest neighbour, Indonesia, which has a population of over 200 million.
What remains unclear is what role Australia will play in East Timor when the UN force is ultimately withdrawn. The trouble in East Timor since 1975, during the decolonisation period, points to the long-term danger of a breakdown in civil administration, continued militia activity from West Timor, or an attempted coup.
If any of these were successful, all the efforts of the past year would have been wasted. Similar issues arise from the coups in Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The understandable response by the Australian Government — in evacuating Australian citizens — unwittingly has made the problems in both countries worse by removing people vital to the economic life of both countries.
Other parts of Oceania, including New Caledonia and Vanuatu, are also potentially unstable, and the future of West Papua, whether as part of Indonesia or as a separate country, is uncertain.
All this requires a fundamental change in Australia’s approach to both South-East Asia and Oceania.
The New Zealand Government has responded by asserting that it would maintain combat forces capable of an interventionist role in regional conflict, supported by air and naval forces. (New Zealand played a valuable role in East Timor, through its commitment of some 800 troops in the Interfet mission.)
While combat forces are important, the question must be asked whether deployment of ground forces after a crisis has developed will always be adequate or appropriate.
In neither Fiji nor the Solomon Islands has such a response been possible.
If, however, Australia had maintained a long-term military presence in Fiji or the Solomon Islands, it is at least arguable that the respective coup leaders might have been deterred from their subsequent adventurism.
In light of the deterioration in Australia’s immediate vicinity, this country will have to increase national defence expenditure to faces three types of challenges:
1. To help avert crises such as those which have emerged recently in Oceania, Australia should seek to position units of the armed forces in these countries, to act as a trip-wire for any potentially destabilising influence.
Such units could perform valuable roles in providing health services, road building and other infrastructure works, which would not otherwise be available.
We must envisage peace keeping in East Timor, a stabilising role in Papua New Guinea, and similar roles in places like Fiji or the Solomon Islands over the next few years.
2. The reputable Jane’s World Armies three years ago declared that Australia’s wealth “made it a glittering strategic prize” and that “in the longer term it would be surprising if during the next century, the country’s defences were not tested”.
3. Australia must develop the capacity to handle a large influx of refugees or immigrants, in the tens of thousands, from a neighbour in civil turmoil.
In 1999 it is significant that PM Howard did not formally ask the US to send forces to help with peacekeeping in East Timor, because Australia knew that East Timor was of no strategic interest to the US. Neither is Papua New Guinea, should its political system collapse. These are considered Australia’s problems.
And if there were a large flood of refugees from a major crisis in one of out northern neighbours, that would be considered Australia’s problem too.
While Australia must work in with its traditional allies, including the US, we must develop a self-reliant defence force, capable of meeting the foreseeable contingencies which might arise in our region.
A sizable army, new equipment and new defence industries, all have a long lead time.