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The Pacific’s Aussie Sheriff

Prepared by: Esther Pan
June 16, 2006


Australia is undergoing national soul-searching about its identity (Western or Asian?) and its role (sheriff or one of the crowd?) as new security challenges emerge. While most Australians heartily support a strong national military that can deploy rapidly to peacekeeping missions or relief efforts, as this new Backgrounder explains, many are ambivalent about their country's participation in U.S.-led military interventions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as the Australian defense budget grows at a steady 3 percent per year, experts are calling for a radical rethinking of national security to encompass both expeditionary operations like Iraq and the challenges of protecting Australia from terrorism and regional threats. Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald that Australia's defense establishment needs to show spending discipline as it plans for the future.

Some Australians are worried about their relative decline in hard power. Paul Kelly, editor-at-large at The Australian writes in Policy magazine that Australia, which boasts of "punching above its weight" on the international stage, needs to focus on increasing that weight (PDF). Alan Dupont, senior fellow for international security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, argues in The Australian that a stronger military will increase the range and flexibility of the Australian Defense Forces (ADF); for example, enabling them to make a quick switch from fighting a conventional enemy to doing relief operations or becoming a peacekeeping force. Deputy Foreign Secretary Gillian Bird details Australia's efforts against WMD proliferation, terrorism, and the threat of failed states in this speech.

Australia has recently played a strong role in regional peacekeeping. ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong says while Australia's 1999 deployment to East Timor was seen by some in the region as aggressive and potentially hostile to Indonesia, its current mission there is that of a friend intervening "at the invitation of the government." Paulo Gorjao writes in the Asia Times that Australia has strict rules for ADF interventions in failing states, including explicit authorization from the host country, a strong mandate, and a clear exit strategy. Ben Scott of the Lowy Institute examines Australia's complex relationship with its former colony Papua New Guinea.

Many Australians also criticize Canberra's closeness to Washington. Peace campaigner Denis Doherty blasts Australia's defense policy under four-term Prime Minister John Howard. Doherty writes in Australia's The Guardian that Australia is paying too high a price for intervening in other countries at the behest of the United States. Peter Edwards of the Australian Defense Force Academy argues Australia needs to constantly evaluate its relationship with the United States to decide whether it still serves Canberra's interests. Some critics, including Mahathir Mohammed, the former prime minister of Malaysia, have accused Australia of failing to decide whether it is a western country or an Asian one. But Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a December 2005 speech that such a choice is not necessary. "It is not a matter of choosing between strong relations with Asia and the United States," he said. "The two are mutually reinforcing."

Allan Gyngell, an Australian foreign policy expert and executive director of the Lowy Institute, argued earlier this year Australia's new security environment is being shaped by two major developments: the rise of China, and the increasing power of non-state actors—anything from a human rights agency to a multinational corporation or even a terrorist group—in the international system.

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