Thu, 17 Jul 2003

Welcoming Australia's regional initiative

Paulo Gorjao, Lecturer, Lusiada University, Portugal

Australia's regional policy towards the South Pacific is about to suffer a significant and welcome change. Until so far, Canberra had always been very reluctant to get involved in the region. However, as it became clear after the Australian National Security Committee meeting on June 25, this time Australia is willing to provide boots on the ground. According to the ABC Lateline show, Canberra might deploy around 150 police, up to 200 combat military, and up to 1500 defense and logistics personnel.

What explains this policy change?

The remote cause was the Bali terrorist attack of Oct. 12 which led to a new political approach regarding Australia's security. The fight against terrorism and non-terrorist-related issues such as people-smuggling, illegal fishing, drug- trafficking and money-laundering were singled out as new national priorities. Moreover, Australia perceives its neighborhood as a troubled region with several potential failed states.

The intermediate cause was that the crisis in the Solomon Islands caught the attention of the Australian public. Last May, two Australian banks were forced to temporarily suspend operations and one Australian missionary was killed in the Solomon Islands. Moreover, the Opposition took the opportunity to criticize Prime Minister John Howard. Kevin Rudd, Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, claimed that the Government kept ignoring the situation despite increasing tensions.

The immediate cause explaining the policy change was the fact that the Solomon Islanders are willing to accept an external intervention. The Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza met Howard on June 5, in Canberra, and took the opportunity to request external support to restore law and order.

The situation was so serious that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) -- a think tank established by the Australian government as an independent center of research on strategic and defense policy -- has been doing research and drafted a report about the Solomon Islands in the last nine months.

Launched on June 10 by the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, the report Our Failing Neighbor: Australia and the future of Solomon Islands incorporated the views of senior staff at the highest levels. Although Downer did not endorse it as an official document, it was clear that a policy change was about to take place.

However, in order to intervene Australia would like to see a resolution passed by the Parliament of the Solomon Islands supporting Governor-General John I. Lapli's formal request for the foreign intervention.

Moreover, Australia also wants clear rules of engagement allowing its personnel to defend itself. One lesson from the United Nations' experience in Bosnia in the 1990s was that vague and weak rules of engagement are unwelcome. On the other hand, clear and robust rules of engagement, as it was the case of East Timor, will contribute to the success of the mission.

It is still unclear whether a clear exit strategy is also considered important by Australia. In East Timor, Australia wanted clear deadlines leading to military disengagement. However, Australia does not have the UN to pass the buck this time.

What are the possible implications of Australia's intervention in the Solomon Islands for Indonesia?

Jakarta has no direct political, economic or strategic interests in the South Pacific. The region is in Australia's backyard and there are no conflicting political, economic or strategic interests between Australia and Indonesia.

Moreover, Australia has already made clear that a formal request must be made, or, otherwise, it will not provide external support to restore law and order. The sovereignty of the Solomon Islands is being respected, and no precedent is taking place with possible implications for Indonesia. Australia's intervention in the Solomon Islands will not have any sort of political or legal implications regarding Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Third, some in Indonesia might welcome an Australian intervention in the Solomon Islands because, to a certain extent, it will redirect Canberra's attention from Southeast Asia towards the South Pacific. It must be added that this is a narrow view, which is doomed to be wrong. It is in Southeast and Northeast Asia that Australia has seven of its top 10 export markets.

Last but not the least, Australia will contribute towards the establishment of a safer regional context and Indonesia will benefit without paying a single dollar. Unfortunately, Indonesia already understood that threats like terrorism, people-smuggling, illegal fishing, drug-trafficking and money-laundering are transnational. It does not matter if a state is successful dealing with them if others are not equally so.

Therefore Indonesia should politically support Canberra's will to shoulder the burden. Or, at least, it should not follow Australia's intervention with concern.

The writer, supervisor of the website http://www.timor-, was a Visiting Fellow in 2002 at the Australian Defense Studies Center, Australia