June 17th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: AustraliaÂ’s Pacific role

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why “sorry” avoids the real Aboriginal issues

ECONOMICS: Foreign debt hits $255 billion

COVER STORY: Wrong way on drugs: new book

Straws in the Wind

ECONOMICS: From bad to worse: the future of world trade

PRIVATISATION: Telstra under fire

Australia and the world


REGIONAL AFFAIRS: West Papua: Jakarta takes the strain

MEDIA: “Australia Week”, junkets and the GST

MEDICINE: Trust me, IÂ’m a bureaucrat!

ASIA: New era for Taiwan

Books promotion page

AustraliaÂ’s Pacific role

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, June 17, 2000
Peter Westmore is National President of the National Civic Council

The latest coup in the Pacific Islands — on the Solomon Islands, adjacent to Papua New Guinea — compounds the escalating collapse of stability in the “inner rim” of countries adjacent to Australia.

The rapidity of the collapse in Oceania and South-East Asia is alarming. Just a year ago, the major local issue facing Australia was the future of East Timor.

Today, in addition to the uncertain future facing an independent East Timor, Australia has stood by as coups have been staged in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, endemic corruption and instability continues to threaten Papua New Guinea, the Papuan People’s Congress has called for independence of mineral-rich West Irian from Indonesia, and Indonesia itself faces growing destabilisation in Aceh and Moluku provinces.

There is little or nothing that Australia can do about the deepening problems in Indonesia, which in recent days has seen massacres of Christians in the Spice Islands by Islamic militants, part of an escalating cycle over which the central government appears to have no control.

Despite all the difficulties of the past year, the government of President Wahid in Indonesia deserves continued Australian support. Apart from permitting the decolonisation of East Timor — which could not have been achieved without Jakarta’s acquiescence — the hard fact is that there is no alternative to President Wahid, who has stated repeatedly that he wants to have positive relations with Australia, and has backed up his statements with action.

Some people, understandably unhappy at military support for the militias in East Timor and the treatment of the Papuan people in West Irian, have suggested that Australia should confront Indonesia. But with what? Australia’s capability to intervene in regional conflicts was stretched to the limit in East Timor, a country of just 800,000 people. Indonesia has a population in excess of 200 million, with a capability to interrupt at will vital Australian air and shipping traffic passing through the Indonesian archipelago.

Australia also depends on Indonesian co-operation to stem the flow of illegal immigrants landing on the Western Australian coastline, and to prevent the entry of exotic diseases into this country.

Australia’s security is enhanced by a stable and peaceful Indonesia, which is capable of providing employment and prosperity for its own people. Anything which can be done to assist this process is therefore in the long-term interests of Australia.

In contrast to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands fall squarely within Australia’s immediate area of responsibility.

Yet no one in Australia took a strong stand when Bougainville attempted to secede from Papua New Guinea some years ago. The Bougainville Liberation Army waged a lengthy guerilla war against the central government, and a ceasefire was ultimately brokered by New Zealand.

More recently, Australia stood by while Fiji endured three coups, and a little over a week ago, did nothing while rebel gunmen — apparently aided by members of the paramilitary Solomon Islands Police Field Force — seized the elected Prime Minister and Governor-General at gunpoint, and overthrew the Government.

It emerged, later, that the Solomon Islands Government had previously requested an Australian military presence — to deter the continued violence by rival militias — but its request was refused. The same request to New Zealand yielded only a handful of unarmed police. Strangely enough, Fiji responded to the request for assistance; but their 50 armed police were unable to go at the last moment, due to the crisis in Fiji. The rest is history.

The crises in the Solomons, Fiji and Papua New Guinea each have different origins: the Solomon Islanders comprise indigenous racial groups which have been at each other’s throats. Fiji is divided many ways: between the majority indigenous Fijians, who control the land, and Indians who own most businesses; between Melanesian and Polynesian; between Fijians from the east of the main island, Viti Levu, and those from the west.

And Papua New Guinea is collapsing under the weight of corruption, not just in business and politics, but increasingly in the police, public service and the army.

Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the region capable of a permanent commitment to guaranteeing the security of Oceania.

In light of its recent decision to scale back its military, New Zealand which in the past has played an important stabilising role in the region, would seem to be no longer capable to playing this role in the future.

What Australia must provide is an active, on-going military presence throughout this region, capable of deterring would-be coup leaders like George Speight in Fiji and Andrew Nori in the Solomons.

It is perhaps time that Australia put forward its equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine, to declare that the peace and stability of Oceania is within Australia’s strategic interests.

While recognising the rights and responsibilities of sovereign nations in the region, Australia must be prepared to deploy military forces to maintain that peace, as the United States did in Western Europe and Asia after World War II.

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