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By Michael O’Keefe, Viewpoint in Islands Business magazine, www.islandsbusiness.com; June 2013 Edition
Canberra has turned its attention back to the Pacific. No more potent a symbol of this renewed interest could be found than the Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s visit to Tonga on the eve of releasing the Defence White Paper ‘Defending Australia and its National Interests’.
The fact that Smith was convening the inaugural annual ‘South Pacific’ defence ministers meeting is certainly significant. But there is also substance behind this symbolism. The minister foreshadowed the new Pacific Maritime Security Programme, which replaces the Pacific Patrol Boat Project and forms the centrepiece of Australia’s new Pacific strategy.
Canberra has some catching up to do after years of benign neglect. For over a decade, Australia and its US ally have been focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘War on Terror’. Operations in Afghanistan are winding down and the White Paper is sensitive to the implications of this major shift in tempo.
Australia’s other large and enduring operation in the Solomon Islands is also winding down. RAMSI has been a major bridge to the region and ending this link will have an impact on the Solomons and on Australian defence engagement.
The second principal task of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) identified by the White Paper is to “contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste”.
Naturally this comes second to providing for the direct defence of Australia. However, it is widely acknowledged that a direct threat is highly unlikely to develop for a generation and therefore the focus on the Pacific gains priority.
While the US is pivoting to Northeast Asia to focus on China, Japan and the Koreas, Australia is pivoting back into the Pacific. The challenge for both is that the seascape has changed dramatically in both areas since their attention shifted to the Middle East over a decade ago.
One key strategic shift that links this ‘pivoting’ is that the Pacific is becoming an arena for geopolitical contest between the great powers.
Australian and US’ strategic interests may very well overlap in this regard, but Australia is apt to view the Pacific as its backyard rather than simply a venue for strategic competition.
A major stumbling block preventing re-engagement is the continuing diplomatic standoff with Fiji. A key plank in the sanctions regime is a ban on defence cooperation. Historically, Fiji has been Australia’s largest defence cooperation partner in the Pacific and the key to broader regional defence cooperation. This is not simply because of the size and capability of the Fiji Military Forces, but also because of Fiji’s place as a hub for the region.
When an Australian defence attaché arrives in Suva after the elections in 2014, he will find a radically different diplomatic environment than when his predecessor left. The Fijian government has a new-found confidence in its diplomatic affairs and Australia is no longer the dominant military cooperation partner. Countries such as China, Indonesia and Russia have filled the gap in defence training and logistics.
This situation is largely of Australia’s doing and it will be its responsibility to play ‘catch up’. It’s clear from the tone of the White Paper that Australian defence planners are sensitive to the changed dynamics of the region. The aim is not to “control” but to “contribute” to the maintenance of regional security.
Furthermore, the emphasis is on regional security challenges that more reflect the interests of the Pacific countries rather than the orthodoxies underpinning the rest of Australia’s strategy.
Seeing the Pacific through Pacific eyes means that the focus is on maritime security (such as fisheries management and protection), transnational crime (such as human trafficking, people smuggling and drug smuggling) and disaster management (humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and stabilisation).
The new maritime security boat programme neatly captures Australia’s intentions and the potential role Pacific leaders have in shaping it to suit regional interests.
This programme will be the centrepiece of defence cooperation. We have no idea what the boats will look like but the intention is clear.
At one point, the White Paper highlights the role of the Royal Australian Navy amphibious ships in humanitarian assistance, etc, in the Pacific. In contrast, the maritime security boats will be gifted to Pacific Islands states to assist islands nations in protecting their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
The capability of these boats will be defined in the year ahead and there is an opportunity to shape the project to meet the maritime security needs of Pacific Islands states for the next generation. Furthermore, whether the boats gifted to individual islands nations are connected into an integrated regional surveillance network supported by Australian assets (such as maritime patrol aircraft) remains to be seen.
To realise its potential, the gulf that has opened up between supporters of Fiji and supporters of Australia isolating Fiji will need to be bridged. Pacific and Australian leaders will have to navigate their way through the turbulent waters created by the ongoing diplomatic tension.
A significant gap in all the White Papers is that they don’t include implementation strategies and the most challenging issue will be how the defence cooperation with the region can be rebuilt.
The maritime security boat programme is one possible bridge. Another could be in relation to peacekeeping. Only last month, a new arrangement linking the training of Fijian and Papua New Guinean peacekeeping forces was announced.
Peacekeeping is a costly and admirable endeavour and one in which the FMF and ADF have some experience. It would be natural for Fijian participation in operations to expand after 2014 and much work could be done to prepare for this eventuality.
Similarly, military forces have the best training and expansion capacity to respond to complex humanitarian contingencies and coordinating the development of a regional capacity to act swiftly to natural disasters is long overdue.
There is great potential for the White Paper to support enhanced regional defence cooperation, but it has to be
acknowledged that the strategic seascape has changed. Whether it achieves its promise depends on the regional buy-in. Probably more than at any time since the Pacific Islands states gained independence, regional leaders have the capacity to shape the scope of defence cooperation.
• Dr Michael O’Keefe is a Senior Lecturer & Convener at La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS
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