Australias interventionist policy

Australias interventionist policy toward the South Pacific

22th October 2009

“Australia, with New Zealand’s help, is stepping up its colonial takeover of the South Pacific”. [Orsag, T. 2003] A “…colonial takeover of PNG’s key operations” in addition to “…what can only be described as colonial style intervention on the Solomon Islands” is of such concern that it is time for the “workers…to overthrow the system.” [Dudley, D. 2003] The adoption of an interventionist policy by Australia in the south Pacific is now a well known fact however it is such views which, according to Symon, are held with conviction in certain quarters that trigger us to address the question, why has Australia adopted an interventionist policy?

Since the end of the 1980s Australia’s engagement in the Pacific has intensified and an increased amount of attention has been focused on problems in the South Pacific region. Most studies of the security threats faced by the region have included inquiries into state failure, and the residual impact on individual countries and their neighbors. Phrases such as the “arc of instability” according to Cullen, have been used to describe a region that was once considered not only peaceful, but also a clear example of democratic governance. In August 2006 Australian Defence Minister Nelson stated to the Australian Parliament that:

We cannot afford to have failing states in our region. The so-called ‘arc of instability’, which basically goes from East Timor through to the south-west Pacific states, means that not only does Australia have a responsibility in preventing and indeed assisting with humanitarian and disaster relief, but also that we cannot allow any of these countries to become havens for transnational crime, nor indeed havens for terrorism [Nelson in Huisken. 2007]

Further more, according to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the Solomon Islands have been described as Oceania’s first failed state, other concerns have also been raised that the region is becoming “Africanized.” [Bovoro]

In the post cold war era, most of the world’s armed conflicts have occurred within states. Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are among the most notable of those experiencing various levels of conflict in the Pacific region. Many PICs have had to deal with issues of government stability due to unstable party coalitions, and frequent votes of no confidence. Nauru, with a population of about 10,000, has had no less than ten changes of government since November 1996 and In July 2003, The Republic of Kiribati held its sixth presidential election in an eight month period. This instability makes it virtually impossible for a government to develop and implement policy before its removal from office.

Calls for a new approach toward the Pacific had been coming for some time from Australian ‘think tanks’, such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Centre for Independent Studies, and according to Dinnen, from several prominent journalists with experience in the region. December 6th 2000, the Australian government released their response, a Defense White Paper, outlining an increase in military spending and a new strategic doctrine that lays the foundation toward further regional interventions. Defense 2000 – Our Future Defense Force indicates a fundamental shift from its “Fortress Australia” policy that has prevailed since the withdrawal from Vietnam toward that of regional protector. Despite its cautious official language, the White Paper sets out that Australia seeks to maintain military ascendancy over the region, and will regard any political instability as a threat to national security. It states that We would be concerned about internal challenges to the stability and cohesion of neighboring countries and concerned about any threat of external aggression against them. [Defence 2000] This doctrine would justify the dispatch of troops in the event of any serious domestic disturbances.
By examining Australia’s bilateral relationship with South Pacific Nations and by comparing John Howard and Kevin Rudd’s approaches toward ‘advancing the national interest’ some may conclude that state-failure is not the primary concern of Australia’s foreign policy makers. [Maloney M. 2009] Maloney further argues that despite the apparent humanitarian vocabulary surrounding the expression of ‘national interest’, the conduct of policy in the Pacific region reveals that “the pursuit, and maintenance, of Australia’s regional hegemony is the single most important driving force behind Australia’s policy decisions” [Maloney M.2009], an idea which is in part supported by O’Keefe. Alternatively according to Pugh this could be based on the fact that there have been successive failures by international organizations in address underlying problems, resulting in state intervention in order to contain problems that would otherwise adversely affect their interests.

Under the Howard government, the idea that threats to Australia’s interest and integrity were ‘lurking’ nearby was furthered by domestic public political discourse. These new threat, didn’t have their origins in Asian Communism, by rather were the result of weak governments in Australia’s own ‘backyard’. Australia’s involvement in East Timor, a crisis in Jakarta-Canberra relations, an influx in refugees and migrants, instability in the Solomon Islands and the growing threats and concerns of global terrorism, all contributed to the overall feeling that Australia was being ‘besieged’ by its weak and disorganized neighbors. [Malony M. 2009] The localized issues facing the region and the notion of a threat to national interests were consolidated by policymakers as a foundation for the Howard government contrived a new policy-patois revolving around the central idea of being able to prevent threats from non-state actors – such as transnational criminals and terrorists. He utilized both pre-emption and unilateralism from the Bush Doctrine to formulate and adapt practical responses to these types of threats.

The way in which Howard directed the peace-building intervention in the Solomon Islands can be seen as an example of such unilateralism. In applying the outward label ‘Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands’ (RAMSI), Howard was able to be selective about the approach that he would take. Australia’s prior prolonged involvement in East Timor, and the diplomatic misgivings that the incident may have caused, are possible reasons behind the Howard government’s desire for ‘swift’ success. According to Maloney, Howard wanted to demonstrate that Australia was capable of ‘taking care of business’ unilaterally, and rejected offers of help from other developed nations. The reality of this reveals that the claims to be protecting Australia from a-symmetrical threats, were in fact used as an opportunity to project Australia’s capabilities as a self-appointed sheriff, acting in its own strategic interests to counter state fragility and to protect Australia’s role as a regional power [O`Keefe]. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was noted at the time as saying “sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important.” [Downer, 2003] Some may draw similarities here with George Bush’s speech prior to entering Iraq following the line of thought posed by O`Keefe that Australia is, after all, the ‘undisputed hegemon’ of the Pacific and its policy of regional interventionism can be seen as a method of maintain this position. In a speech made to the Asia Society Howard is quoted in reference to the Solomon Island intervention as saying that “What mattered however, and the true test of our engagement, was not the formal process but the outcome. This was a regional response to a fragile state and it was our responsibility as a Pacific power to take the lead.”[Howard, 2008]

Ethnic differences, land disputes, economic disparities, and a general lack of confidence in corrupt or ineffective governments are viewed as the main causes of conflict in the region and have led in some cases to what some are calling state failure, they have at the very least have contributed to the breakdown in law and order, and to declining education and health services and living standards [Firth, 2005]. Economic stagnation, environmental degradation and food security issues have added additional problems to the overall decline in security throughout the South Pacific.

The result of these threats has had not only have an impact on neighboring states, but have also raised fears that the security environment is amenable to the evolution of other threats. The spread of turmoil within the weak states of the region has, according to Wainwright, been an ideal setting for the growth of transnational crime, money laundering, illegal immigration, arms smuggling, drug trafficking, and of course, terrorism. [Wainwright, 2003] These issues have been compounded by the region’s easily accessible borders and the inability of governments to control them, as well as the attraction of well-funded criminal or terrorist organizations to these economically weakened states.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in ‘The responsibility to protect also remarked that attempting to draw a balance between respecting sovereignty and saving lives can often pose a problem. The report sets forth that sovereignty remains an important issue for states, but additionally notes that ‘the conditions under which sovereignty is exercised – and intervention is practiced – have changed dramatically since 1945. The report further goes on to argue that it is the responsibility of states to intervene in when a particular government is unable or unwilling to discharge their responsibility to protect against various disasters occurring within its own borders. It also sets forward the principle that this responsibility will prevail over the norm of non-intervention in such instances.

This change in thinking has come about due to an awareness that events in one country frequently impact their neighboring states and on the region as a whole. No longer is seen as acceptable for a state to ignore problems any other state because they are internal, especially when the security of others may be affected as a result. The South Pacific presents itself as a prime example of this where the spread of violence from one country to another within the region is clearly recognizable. As Ellie Wainwright noted, “the Bougainville conflict of the 1990s spread into the Solomon Islands across the porous PNG-Solomon Islands border in the form of refugees, guns, and a glorification of gun culture”. [Wainwright, 2003] The presence of weak states and political institutions with in the Pacific region, its relative openness of borders and geographic remoteness, all contribute to making it vulnerable to transnational crime, terrorism, and to trafficking of drugs, weapons, or refugees.

The way these threats are viewed and dealt with was also affected by terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 and in Bali in 2002. The Nasonini Declaration of 2002 , demonstrates concern within the region about the potential for the evolution of international crime and terrorism, reiterating the importance of regional leaders “of introducing legislation and developing national strategies to combat serious crime” they also expressed “their concern about the recent heightened threat to global and regional security following the events of September 11th 2001 in particular, those posed by international terrorism and transnational crime”.

The perceived threat of terrorism in the region has greatly effected the policy formulation in Australia with the Howard government undertaking a complete rethink of its policies towards the Pacific region. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the Bali bombings the policy makers shifted their focus to terrorism and the increasing potential for failed states to become targets of terrorist groups. The proximity of the Pacific Island nations in question to Australia’s own shores meant that it now had a direct and vested interest in helping to maintain security in the region, a policy was becoming increasingly engaged. A reflection of this attitude was also seen within the wider regional community, of ASEAN and Pacific nations, each making commitments to the “war on terrorism”, or, at the very least, making symbolic statements on counter terrorism and proposing certain practical measures.

Australian and regional policy has been altered by the global focus on terrorism. This in turn has altered the degree to which Australia is willing to engage itself both regionally and internationally. Significantly, Australia’s supportive role in the war on terrorism and its position as a regional power in the Pacific has meant that is now, as O`Keefe points out an expectation that Australia will assist during further crises in its neighborhood, which are viewed now as Australia’s area of responsibility.

In recent years the view of Australia as a regional peacemaker has found substantial support, a view was greatly strengthened by Australia’s active role in the war on terrorism. The success of the Australian led intervention in the Solomon Islands and the increased intervention in the region has provided a key example of the potential for regional cooperation, and a useful insight into the future direction of Australian policy.

The threat of terror and the appeasing of allies for intervention, nor the governments humanitarian reasoning were adequate reasons for the introduction of Australia’s interventionist policy. There is no singular reason for it rather a complex web of rational and events that has led up to it over a prolonged period of time. What is clear though is that the processes that led to the intervention and the development of Australia’s own interventionist policies could help inform the creation of security mechanisms in the future.


Australian Government, Defence 2000 White paper,

Bovoro V, A synopsis of the Africanization if the South pacific thesis: Is the Africanization thesis a true diagnosis of instability in Melonesia.

Cullen A, Murry S (Ed.) 2008, The Globalisation of World Politics – Case studies from Australia, New Zealand and the Asia Pacific – Revised Edition. Oxford University Press, NSW, Australia.

DFAT, 2003, ‘Helping our neighbors consolidate their future’ Advancing the National Interest, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra, p.93 accessed September 2009.

Downer A. 2003 Security in an unstable world, speech June 26 2003 Viewed Sept 2009

Dudley, D. 2003, ‘No troops to Solomon Islands!’ Socialist World Website, 2003/07/26. html , accessed October 2009.

Firth S, 2005, Australia in International Politics – An Introduction to Australian foreign policy 2nd Edition. Allen and Unwin, NSW, Australia.

Huisken, R. Thatcher, M.C. 2007 History as Policy: Framing the Debate on the Future of Australia’s Defence Policy (Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence) by Australian National University Ch. 6 p85

O`Keefe M in Cotton J, Ravenhill J 2007, Trading on Alliance Security – Australia in world affairs 2001-2005. Oxford University Press. Ch. 7 pp 131-149

Orsag, T. 2003, ‘Pacific Forum Bullied into Submission’ Socialist Worker Monthly Review Website, , accessed October 2009.

Sinclair, D. 2004, Lending a Fist? Australia’s new interventionism in the Southwest Pacific. The Australian National University, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, State Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper. May 2004. accessed September 2009

Symon, P. Colonel, 2004. Australia’s current policy towards Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific: Is recolonisation underway?’s%20Current%20Policy%20Towards….pdf accessed September 2009

Wainright, E. 2003, Our Failing Neighbor: Australia and the Future of the Solomon Islands, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra.

Wainright, E. 2003, Responding to state failure—the case of Australia and Solomon Islands in Australian Journal of International Affairs, Volume 57, Issue 3 November 2003 , pp 485 – 498

White B, Little R, Smith M. (Ed) Issues in World Politics 3rd Edition. Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2005. Ch. 7 p.122

Appendix 1


Forum Leaders recalled their commitment in the 1992 Honiara Declaration on Law Enforcement Cooperation, the 1997 Aitutaki Declaration and the Biketawa Declaration adopted in 2000 to act collectively in response to security challenges including the adverse effects of globalisation such as transnational crimes, and unlawful challenges to national integrity and independence.
2. In this regard, Leaders recalled their commitment to good governance practices at all levels as a key fundamental strategy for addressing some of the difficult and sensitive issues underlying the causes of tension and conflict in the region.
3. Leaders expressed their concern about the recent heightened threat to global and regional security following the events of September 11th 2001, in particular, those posed by international terrorism and transnational crime.
4. Recognising the need for immediate and sustained regional action in response to the current regional security environment, Forum Leaders affirmed the importance of the Honiara Declaration, in particular, as providing a firm foundation for action to address these new and heightened threats to security in the region.
5. Forum Leaders underlined their commitment to the importance of global efforts to combat terrorism and to implement internationally agreed anti-terrorism measures, such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 and the Financial Action Task Force Special Recommendations, including associated reporting requirements.
6. The Forum Leaders reaffirmed that law enforcement cooperation, backed by a strong common legislative base, should remain an important focus for the region and welcomed progress which has been made in regional law enforcement cooperation under the auspices of the relevant regional bodies.
7 Forum Leaders noted however, that, while some progress had been made in the implementation of the Honiara Declaration, further urgent action was required of some member states and recommitted to full implementation of relevant legislation under the
Honiara Declaration by the end of 2003.
8. Leaders underlined the importance to Members of introducing legislation and developing national strategies to combat serious crime including money laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and terrorist financing, people smuggling, and people trafficking in accordance with international requirements in these areas, taking into account work undertaken by other bodies including the UN and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
9. Forum Leaders tasked the Forum Regional Security Committee to review regional implementation of UNSCR 1373, the FATF Special Recommendations and the Honiara Declaration and report back to the Forum at next year’s meeting on these subjects.
THIRTY-THIRD PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM, Suva, Fiji Islands, 15-17 August 2002





One thought on “Australias interventionist policy

  1. Pingback: TkS8DWVEiZ TkS8DWVEiZ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s