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Securing the South Pacific: Making the most of Australia's renewed regional focus

Securing the South Pacific: Making the most of Australia's renewed regional focus

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Published by Open Briefing
Report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Australia, July 2013).
Report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Australia, July 2013).

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Published by: Open Briefing on Jul 25, 2013
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      S      T      R      A      T      E      G      I      C
Karl Claxton
July 2013
Securing the South Pacifc
Making the most o Australia's renewed regional ocus
Executive summary
A decade ater the invasion o Iraq, the 10-year-anniversary o the Regional Assistance Mission to SolomonIslands (RAMSI) later this month will mark an equally signicant juncture in Australia’s strategic policy.The new
Deence White Paper 2013
declares that the ADF will be structured around just two o its principaltasks: preventing attacks on Australia and promoting stability and security in the South Pacic and Timor-Leste.But ostering South Pacic security is as dicult as it is important, especially in the large, sometimes volatile,states o Melanesia. It’s getting harder, too, as regional partners explore resh ways to meet amiliar butdeepening challenges.
Securing the South Pacifc: making the most o Australia's renewed regional ocus
The white paper also fags a
o Australian interest that had waned—partly because Canberra was ocused on theMiddle East and North Asia but also because o diculties encountered last time it emphasised regional security underthe 2003–07 ‘more interventionist approach’.Given how ast major crises can arise, Canberra should continue to enhance the ADF’s capabilities or regionalintervention. That suggests against cutting the Army’s regular inantry battalions. To help avoid such crises (and toprepare the ADF and partner orces or them) we should vigorously pursue the white paper’s ocus on deeper regionaldeence relationships. A crucial but as yet ununded element o that engagement is the Pacic Maritime SecurityProgram, which would preserve the ADF’s strategic presence across the region and help partner countries police avast area Australia would otherwise have to patrol itsel. Canberra should also renew its investment in Pacic policingbecause o the extent o regional criminal threats and the crucial role o the Australian Federal Police in stabilising crises.I Australia wants partner countries to go along with its desire to lead, it will need innovative approaches as well asimproved security tools. New ADF capabilities to project power into the region will give Canberra better options butalso greater scope or missteps. Australia should use its whole-o-government procedures to explore such mattersin advance.Australia’s sot power may prove just as important as its capability clout. Getting that right requires a nuancedunderstanding o individual countries, so the government would benet rom a deeper, more sustained, conversationbetween Pacic and security scholars and ocials.It might also be best to take a sot power approach to evolving Pacic regionalism. Instead o trying to shape MelanesianSpearhead Group initiatives in order to preserve Australian security leadership, Canberra may get the best results ondicult security issues (such as West Papua) by giving regional leaders as much room and responsibility as possible.Finally, Canberra should be in no hurry to draw China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into military cooperation in theSouth Pacic—there are better locations elsewhere or that important task.
Indications and drivers o growing interest
The ADF passed a milestone with the end o Operation Anode, the military component o RAMSI, on 1 July 2013. O itsother two signicant local interventions, Operation Astute in Timor-Leste concluded in March, and Operation Bel Isi inBougainville ended in August 2003.Canberra might have been expected to draw a line under such long-running commitments. An appetite or risky, costly
,new operations is unlikely under decit budgets when there’s no local crisis brewing.Yet January’s national security strategy identies enhanced regional engagement as one o just three main priorities orthe next ve years.
The region eatures in Foreign Secretary Varghese’s 6+2+N ormulation o Australia’s internationalpriorities, in which N is or neighbourhood.
Investing to shape a avourable strategic environment is a bipartisanpriority, too.Although there’s a gap ‘between the strategic theology o the initial chapters o the white paper and the wish list oequipment projects urther in’
(and the other two principal tasks o contributing to Indo-Pacic and global security, aswell as actors such as the US rebalance, are obviously signicant too) its regional ocus is real. South Pacic countriescontain ewer than 10 million o the hal a billion people between Australia and China, but they sit astride Australia’s nearlines o communication and it’s considered essential no major military power establish bases in the area. That’s why everydeence white paper since 1976 has included the South Pacic as a main ocus, even at the height o ADF operations andmajor strategic developments elsewhere.
Strategic Insights
Canberra’s renewed attention mainly refects concerns that security in the near neighbourhood could deteriorate quicklyin the ace o persistent development and security challenges, requiring the ADF to conduct stabilisation missions. Thechallenges include ast-growing populations, youth bulges, high unemployment, periodic political instability and poorgovernance. Given this scope or trouble (see box), Australia might need to deploy a brigade-sized orce into the nearregion again with little warning.
The 2013 white paper’s regional ocus is also partly cost-driven.
Put simply, an ADF designed around protecting thecontinent and regional stabilisation operations will be less expensive than a orce designed or uture high-end war-ghting in Northeast Asia. The ocus on regional security gives the ADF a coherent oundation or orce structure planningbased on ‘credible contingencies’ that are actually likely, and provides opportunities to retain useul and interesting rolesater Aghanistan.
 The regional ocus refects slight anxieties about local ripples rom China’s rise too.
Key actors complicating the regional security ocus
Some o the trends that have sharpened Australian interest in the South Pacic make promoting regional securityharder. For all its clout, Canberra has never had, nor really sought, tight local control. It aspires to great infuence,reaching towards a loose dominance, but has only ever tully devoted the sort o attention that would give it anything likehegemony—loose or tight. The international setting’s now more competitive, and local leaders are ever less receptive toperceived pushiness, so it’s uncertain whether Canberra’s renewed inclination to exercise leadership is matched by theneighbours’ readiness to oer what Graeme Dobell calls ‘ollowship’.
All Australia’s Melanesian, and most Polynesian and Micronesian, partners conront serious, mainly internal,security challenges:
Papua New Guinea (PNG) ended its year-long constitutional crisis with the 2012 election but only ater‘muddling through’ had been stretched to near breaking point. As Australia’s chie diplomat in PNG at the timediplomatically put it, ‘or a moment, there appeared to be a real risk that PNG would walk away rom its prouddemocratic record.’
Mining and shing won’t ully und Solomon Islands’ budget shortall, sustain neo-traditional patronagenetworks, soak up labour rom the country’s youth bulge, or help balance uneven rural–urban developmentexacerbated by the near exhaustion o unsustainable logging.
There’s potential or renewed tension ahead o Bougainville’s reerendum or i the PNG Government reuses toratiy a possible vote or ull independence (as it could under the 2001 peace agreement).
Indonesian President Yudhoyono now lacks spare political capital to invest in Aceh-type concessions to reducerural Papuans’ growing sense o relative deprivation, and it’s uncertain whether this will be a priority orhis successor.
In Tonga, as elsewhere, past tensions, such as those behind the 2006 riots in Nuku’aloa and Honiara, couldreignite with little warning.
As the International Crisis Group recently pointed out, although Timor-Leste (which regards itsel mainly asan Asian country) is growing strongly, its ragile stability remains vulnerable to convulsions in the patronagenetworks underpinning recent progress.
Some areas serious violence could emerge quickly

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