Search Monday August 4, 2003

Australia: Deputy sheriff down under
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Friday, July 18, 2003

HONG KONG: Australia's decision to send 2,000 troops to the Solomon Islands is at one level a police operation to shore up a failing neighboring state. It also reflects an assertive foreign policy in tune with that of President George W. Bush.

Rather than having second thoughts about the wisdom of having joined the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard is relishing a proactive international role. That, in turn, is raising concerns among Asian neighbors whom Australia has long wooed, but who remain suspicious of its Western links and old colonial associations.

The Solomons intervention came at its government's request, and was approved by South Pacific neighbors. New Zealand will also send peacekeepers. But the operation represents a departure from Australia's hands-off attitude to the "arc of instability" represented by the Melanesian areas to its north - Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, French-ruled New Caledonia and Indonesia's West Papua all have current or recent political problems.

The Howard government has decided both that sovereignty is not absolute, and that pre-emption to prevent failed states from becoming rogue states is justifiable. It has also publicly bypassed the United Nations. In a key speech on June 26, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer criticized the UN and multilateralism as "a synonym for an ineffective and unfocussed policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator." He called for more "coalitions of the willing" to deal with specific security threats.

Australia's attitude has been as much influenced by the Bali bombing as by the strong support conservative governments have traditionally given to the United States. The fear that failed states could become haven for terrorists is real. But the Howard administration has gone beyond potential neighborhood threats, not only by sending troops to Iraq, but also now making plain its willingness to join any U.S.-led efforts to use force against “rogue states” - such as blockading North Korea to prevent its export of weapons.

Asian neighbors, including those generally allied with the United States, tend to resent Australia's desire to act as the U.S. "deputy sheriff" in the region. Indonesians worry that pre-emption could be used against them, Koreans find Australia presumptuous, Muslims detect "crusader" attitudes.

Asian governments also tend to see the Howard government's attitudes as a partial abandoning of Australia's emphasis on "meshing with Asia" - to use the phrase of former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Australian society has changed dramatically in 30 years due to its multicultural immigration policy and an influx of people and money from Asia. Australia has constantly fretted about its relationship with Asia. But, as an influential recent book by a former diplomat - "About Face: Asian Accounts of Australia" by Alison Broinowski - points out, Asia has been slow to reciprocate. Some Asian politicians have continued to use Australia's past against it. They have exaggerated anti-immigrant feeling, pinned the label “poor white trash of Asia” on it and sneered at its lack of their ancient culture. Australia's freedoms, prosperity and multiracialism were an affront to less successful Asian states. Meanwhile, the price of Australia's entry into the Asian club rose with Asian wealth. Excluded from a special relationship with the Association of South East Asian Nations, Australia is now talking of a free trade deal with the United States, though that could undermine its leadership role in the Cairns Group of farm exporters.

It is a moot point whether Australia is still trying to mesh with Asia. Howard has said Australia does "not claim to be Asian," which may justify the claims of the foremost opponent of Australian entry into Asian groupings - Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - that Australia is not and could not be part of Asia. As Broinowski put it: "As if jilted by its Asian fiancé, [Australia] has gone back to its old Western flame."

That is unlikely to prove permanent. The gravitational pull of Asian economies is strong. Asia will remain Australia's primary source of migrants. Asia can benefit from Australia's commitments to an open economy and society, and from its military capabilities. For the moment, Australia's international posture must be seen in the context of disappointments with the results of its effort to "mesh" with Asia, and of the impact of Sept. 11 on all relationships between Western and Muslim-majority nations.