Australia’s Security Role in the Pacific

Australia’s Security Role in the Pacific

Australia is assuming a more prominent role in Pacific Rim security affairs, increasingly deploying forces to troubled states in the region in an attempt to stabilize them. While its moves are welcomed by some of its neighbors, others are wary of Canberra’s strong military and its close relationship with Washington.

Last updated June 18, 2006 8:00 am (EST)

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Australia, which twenty years ago saw itself as a minor player on the world stage, is increasingly asserting itself in the Pacific region. Canberra is playing a strong role in establishing and maintaining regional security, and Australian troops are currently deployed in peacekeeping, peacemaking, and reconstruction missions from Iraq and Afghanistan to East Timor and the Solomon Islands. But not everyone welcomes Australia’s new muscularity: Critics say Canberra is too influenced by Washington, and some Southeast Asian nations are wary of Australia’s motives as its military influence increases.

What is Australia’s current role in maintaining security in the Pacific?

Experts say Australia sees itself as a leader in the region, focused on assisting Asian Pacific states with their economic development and stability. "The Pacific is basically Australia ’s backyard," says Leonard Sebastian, senior fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "Working with the United States, Australia has primary responsibility for security in the region." Canberra also encourages good governance and improved economic performance in its neighbors.

Australian officials say the nation feels an obligation—for both security and humanitarian reasons—to ensure the countries around it are both stable and prosperous. But some critics say Australia sometimes ignores the views of other states on what they, instead of Canberra, see as threats to their security. "In practice, Australia plays a rather clumsy or overbearing hand in its relations with the region," says Craig Snyder, director of the international relations postgraduate studies program at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. "Its assistance often reflects more Australian interests or issues than those of the Pacific states."

Australian officials say the nation feels an obligation—for both security and humanitarian reasons—to ensure the countries around it are both stable and prosperous.

What kind of military activities does Australia pursue in the region?

Australia provides military-to-military assistance to several countries in the region, ranging from joint exercises and training to helping with infrastructure development. It also has been very active in peacekeeping and peacemaking missions. In 1999, some 5,000 Australian forces led a UN multinational force in East Timor charged with halting violence after the territory voted for independence from Jakarta. The force operated under the UN transitional administration in East Timor, UNTAET. By early 2006, the bulk of the troops had withdrawn, although some Australian military and civilian trainers remained on the ground. When violent conflict broke out again at the end of April, Australia led the deployment of a four-nation international peacekeeping force—made up of soldiers from Australia, Portugal, Malaysia, and the Netherlands—invited by the East Timor government into the nation to restore calm.

Australia is also leading the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), which aims to quell the violence that erupted after national elections in April 2006. The mission includes soldiers from neighboring states New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga, and follows a 2003 Australian intervention in the tiny Pacific nation.

What is the role of the Australian military in the Solomon Islands?

Australian forces first led an international peacekeeping force to the Pacific nation in 2003, after ethnic strife raised the prospect of a failed state—and the threat of a base for transnational crime or terrorism—very close to Australian borders. This time around, "the focus is restoring law and order," Snyder says. ADF troops have been disarming factions and punishing looters and criminals. But some critics say the deployment is addressing the symptoms of the crisis, not the cause. They say not enough attention is being paid to ethnic reconciliation or training native Islanders to take over administrative positions from the many non-citizens who hold the jobs.

Does Australia see itself as the “sheriff” of the Pacific?

The government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard, now in his fourth term, was dubbed "deputy sheriff" to the United States by The Bulletin, an Australian magazine, in 1999 for his enthusiastic support of U.S. missions. The label stuck, and on a 2003 visit to Australia, President George Bush effectively endorsed it, calling Australia "an equal partner in the war on terror." The closeness of Canberra’s relationship with the United States still upsets many in the region, who feel Australia is siding with Washington against global Islam. Australia saw its relations with Indonesia decline precipitously after its 1999 East Timor intervention, which Islamic extremists painted as an effort by a Christian nation to break apart Muslim Indonesia.

Others, however, say some Southeast Asians are warier of Australia’s "sheriff" role in the region, viewing Australian military intervention as a form of neo-imperialism or the return of colonialism. Memories of Australia’s colonial rule of Papua New Guinea—from the early 20th century until the territory’s independence in 1975—are still fresh in the region. Despite the $300 million in annual aid it receives from Australia, Papua New Guinea remains mired in crime, violence, and corruption.

How large is the Australian military?

There are about 52,000 active-duty personnel in the Australian Defense Forces (ADF). Australia’s Royal Air Force features the F/A-18 fighter, built in Australia under license from its U.S. manufacturer, and an aging squadron of U.S.-built F-111 strike aircraft. The Royal Navy’s fleet includes twelve frigates and six submarines. The Navy also developed a revolutionary class of large, fast catamaran troop transports the U.S. Navy is now studying and considering adopting.

Australia currently spends about $16 billion dollars, or about 1.9 percent of its GDP, on defense, more than the combined spending of many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Experts say Australia’s forces are seen as among the most flexible, mobile, and capable in the region. It is regarded as one of the few midsized powers with a significant "expeditionary capability"—i.e., the ability to deploy integrated naval, air, and land forces abroad quickly in crisis situations. Outside of New Zealand, whose small army is also respected, no other country in the region has a military with the capacity to match Australia’s. And the fact that Australia uses its military as much for humanitarian missions—like providing assistance after the 2004 tsunami—as military interventions has helped its reputation in the region, experts say.

Where are Australian forces currently deployed?

There are currently about 2,000 ADF troops deployed in East Timor; about 1,300 in Afghanistan; 1,400 in Iraq; about 400 troops in the Solomon Islands along with some 150 Australian Federal Police; and about fifty ADF personnel on UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and in the Sudan, experts say.

What capabilities are the Australian Defense Forces trying to develop?

A wide range so it can do a variety of international missions, experts say. These range from strike forces used in anti-terrorism or international peace missions (including Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001) to reconstruction teams (Iraq and Afghanistan today) to regional assistance missions (East Timor and the Solomon Islands) and disaster relief (the 2004 tsunami). "Australia maintains the capability to rapidly respond to disasters, especially within the immediate neighborhood," Snyder says. Some officials say the Australian military does not have one characteristic mission, but is developing its capacities so it can respond quickly to whatever needs to be done in the region.

How do Australians feel about their country’s involvements abroad?

Experts say Australians tend to give strong support to missions seen as relief-oriented but are more ambivalent about missions that involve military intervention. "For the Australian people, the more ’humanitarian’ the mission, the greater the level of support it is given," Snyder says. "Australians are very supportive of the deployments in East Timor and the Solomons, [both because] of the perception that these are peacekeeping or humanitarian interventions, but also because there have been no Australian casualties." Australians pushed their government to get involved with tsunami relief, strongly supporting government aid to Indonesia and other affected countries and raising $300 million in aid from private citizens.

Many observers say Australia is doing more than its fair share for regional security. "They’re definitely bearing a disproportionate burden," Sebastian says. "Australian security capacities are stretched to the breaking point that could imperil the country’s security if it were located in a less benign environment." The country is also extremely divided over the presence of Australian forces in Iraq. Some argue it is their obligation to participate as part of their security alliance with the United States, while others say the rationale for the war was flawed, and that Iraq had few ties to global terrorism. Howard was the subject of a no-confidence vote by the Australian Senate in 2003 over his handling of the Iraq War.

"For the Australian people, the more ’humanitarian’ the mission, the greater the level of support it is given," Snyder says.

How do other Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia, feel about Australia’s robust military?

Snyder says Southeast Asian states appreciate direct military-to-military contact with Australia because it helps them build their own military capacity, increases bilateral and regional cooperation, and helps improve communication on security issues like counterterrorism or drug trafficking. Many Southeast Asian countries also see Australia’s close relationship with the U.S. military as an asset, he says, not only because the Australian military can pass on lessons learned from the U.S. military, but also because Australia can help the United States understand Southeast Asia.

Many people in the region share the feelings of outspoken former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. "Australia has to choose whether it’s an Asian country or a Western country," he told The Australian in 2002. "If you take the position of being a deputy sheriff to America, you cannot very well be accepted by the countries of this region." But Australian officials say there is no inherent contradiction in being friendly with both Asia and the United States. "It is not a matter of choosing between strong relations with Asia and the United States," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a December 2005 speech. "The two are mutually reinforcing."

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