Aussie rules in the Pacific

Why Australian prime minister John Howard is slated for supporting the war in Iraq but cheered for reconquering the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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The government of Australian prime minister John Howard was widely criticised for its loyal support of the American ‘war on terror’, including its despatch of troops to bolster Coalition forces in Iraq. But Australia’s recent burst of militarism in the Pacific is rarely challenged; in fact, it is often celebrated. Why is this?

Howard’s government was bitterly criticized by anti-war activists and commentators for supporting the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Australia already has more troops in East Timor than it has in either of those countries, as well as a further 400 troops in the Solomon Islands. Unlike Iraq, these military operations have been almost universally welcomed, both in Australia and the wider world. Following the despatch of troops in May to East Timor, Australia’s Daily Telegraph argued that ‘Australia has a continuing responsibility – having acted as “midwife” when East Timor was issued into independence – to supervise her transition from wobbly infancy’. The Sydney Morning Herald claimed that, ‘As a good international citizen and regional power Australia has a moral obligation to support East Timor.’ (1)

These sentiments were echoed in a leader in The Economist, which lauded Australia’s ‘policing’ of the Pacific, but wanted such policing to be pushed further: ‘Asia needs a posse, not just a lonely sheriff’, it argued (2).

Australia’s ‘policing’ activities are not limited to military expeditions. Its bureaucrats run the finance ministry, central bank and police force in the Solomon Islands, as well as overseeing the finances of Nauru. As part of the ‘enhanced co-operation programme’ with its former colony of Papua New Guinea, Australian police officers and civil servants oversee that state’s policing, border controls, justice system and economy (3).

The origins of Australia’s new sphere of influence in the Pacific can be traced back to its military intervention in East Timor in 1999, when the United Nations authorised an Australian-led force to quell the violence that followed the international community’s coercion of Indonesia into holding a referendum on the Timorese independence. This intervention was followed in July 2003 (after the invasion of Iraq) by the despatch of another Australian-led force, this time to the Solomon Islands.

Australia offers two basic justifications for this new interventionism. The first is human rights. So officials claimed they were sending troops to East Timor to protect the Timorese from retreating pro-Indonesian forces. But the extent of this humanitarian compassion has proved remarkably limited on other occasions. Howard’s government is well known for mistreating asylum seekers, even sending naval special forces in August 2001 to round up 400 Afghan asylum-seekers adrift in international waters, before dumping them for ‘processing’ in Nauru, at a safe distance from Australia’s shores. In November 2003, a boat containing 14 Kurdish asylum seekers was towed back into international waters and re-routed to Indonesia.

In 2001, Australian minister for immigration Phillip Ruddock defended this policy on the grounds of protecting Australia’s sovereignty, ‘including Australia’s sovereign right to determine who shall enter Australia’ (4). But this concern for the rights of sovereign states does not extend to those of Indonesia, or of those Pacific Island states where Australia has despatched its soldiers and bureaucrats. Evidently, some sovereigns are more equal than others. Humanitarian compassion recognises some borders (namely, Australia’s), but not others (such as Indonesia’s). When refugees try to cast off their status as telegenic human rights victims, to seek out a better life in rich countries, they are quickly relabelled as ‘threats’ to the stability of our societies.

The second justification for Australia’s new sphere of influence is a bizarrely paranoiac notion of pre-emptive defence. The argument is made that Australian power is necessary to prevent ‘failing states’ in the Pacific from becoming part of an ‘arc of instability’ (5), which would offer havens for terror and organised crime to take root.

But the idea of the Taliban using the Solomon Islands as a launch pad for the invasion of Australia is even more absurd than the notion that Saddam Hussein’s elusive WMD posed a threat to civilisation. At the time of the 2003 Solomon Islands intervention, the Prime Minister of PNG, Sir Michael Somare, argued that: ‘In Papua New Guinea we are concerned about the way foreign academics, journalists and governments try to determine the fate of small developing countries. Our performance is being judged by past records. Yet no one wants to acknowledge the positive steps that we are taking…. The designation of the term “weak” or “failed” to a developing nation seems…to be rather arbitrary.’ (6)

The fact that such thin justifications and paranoid geopolitics can become the basis for foreign policy indicates the extent to which Western military intervention in the developing world goes unquestioned. The West’s moral authority to govern the affairs of poor countries is taken for granted. The only debate is on the technicalities – which country to intervene in; how to secure the patina of multilateral legitimacy; how to spread the burden of troop deployments and logistics, and so on. The Solomon Islands only achieved independence in 1978. Yet since 2003, they have been restored to foreign rule on the grounds of preventing terrorism and organised crime.

East Timor’s period of independence has proved even more shortlived. Having been granted independence from the UN only in 2002, the former Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmão recently pleaded for the international community to re-occupy the country (7).

Australia’s new interventionism has provided a platform for Howard to pontificate about how Australia’s neighbours should run their affairs. ‘I have a right as prime minister of Australia’, he proclaimed earlier this year, ‘to say to the political leadership [of East Timor] it carries a very heavy responsibility.’ (8)

Whatever moral authority nation-building in the Pacific has given Howard, the legacy it has bestowed on the peoples of the Pacific is another matter. The ‘arc of instability’ used to justify Australia’s interventionism has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the failure of nation-building projects in East Timor and the Solomon Islands used as justification for another round of intensified nation-building. Whatever hopes were raised by ideas of pre-emptive intervention, nation-building and human-rights intervention as a solution to the problems of Pacific states in the late 1990s, they have clearly been confounded. The results are in, and they are disastrous. It is high time we challenged the nation-building experiment.

Philip Cunliffe is co-convenor of the Sovereignty and Its Discontents working group. Email him at

(1) BBC Monitoring, ‘No quick fix for Timor, says Australia press’, 26 May 2006

(2) The Economist, ‘Policing the Pacific’, 3 June 2006

(3) The Economist, ‘Policing the Pacific’, 3 June 2006

(4) Phillip Ruddock, cited in Katharine Gelber and Matt McDonald ‘Ethics and exclusion: representations of sovereignty in Australia’s approach to asylum seekers’ Review of International Studies, April 2006, 32:2, p.269

(5) Guardian News blog, ‘Australia’s “arc of instability”’, 26 May 2006

(6) Sir Michael Somare, ‘The new face of the Pacific: continuity and change’, Address to the Pacific Cooperation Foundation and New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 12 August 2003

(7) See East Timor: when nation-building destroys, by Philip Cunliffe

(8) John Aglionby, ‘Back to square one’, Guardian, 6 June 2006

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Topics Politics


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