The Debate

Australia’s Changing Neighborhood

The fragile nation states of the South West Pacific have geostrategic significance, and not just for Australia.

By Andrew Pickford for

The South West Pacific is dotted with small and micro states, with many only recently winning independence and still facing varying degrees of internal instability. These countries range from tiny islands to artificial amalgamations of diverse cultures. The largest, Papua New Guinea, has over 800 different languages, a tough proposition for any national government, quite apart from its other challenges. The region is marked by weak governance and poor, fast-growing populations.

These islands have only recently integrated into the global economic system. Many were under European colonial control until as late as the 1970s or 1980s. While a number of tribal groupings and islands form nation states, virtually none are viable as continuing independent entities. And given the region’s history as a strategically significant staging ground for geopolitical contests, the collapse of one country could lead to greater regional instability and an external presence, including military.

As a result of these features (and geographical proximity), Australia and New Zealand have become the region’s de-facto underwriters. Despite nominal independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea now receives around AUD$500 million per annum from its large neighbor. Australia has also assisted in stabilizing and capacity-building activities in the region, but its ability to militarily intervene in future crises is limited by logistics.

The most vulnerable types of countries (from an Australian strategic perspective) can be categorized according to two main cultural groups: Polynesian nations and the larger Melanesian nations (the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and East Timor). As a side note, Micronesia is somewhat further away and does not factor greatly into Australia’s grand strategy.

None of the Melanesian states has had a long history as a cohesive, viable political unit.  The Solomon Islands has around 500,000 citizens and compared to Papua New Guinea, home to over seven million, it is a relatively small country. By 2003, the Solomon Island’s government had become virtually unworkable and it was only the invitation and deployment of a regional force, led by Australia and New Zealand, which helped stabilize the nation and avoid collapse.  According to the stabilization force’s official website: “[the] Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is a partnership between the people and Government of Solomon Islands and fifteen countries of the Pacific. RAMSI arrived in Solomon Islands in July 2003 at the request of the Solomon Islands Government. Since then, much has been achieved and Solomon Islands is continuing on its path to recovery.”

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RAMSI was initially military-led, but it relatively quickly introduced a policing capability, capacity-building and development projects. While successful in stabilizing the country, the operation was difficult, expensive and resulted in a long-term engagement. This effectively made Australia a quasi-colonizer, although at the time it was framed in different language.

Despite the challenges, an Australia faced with another impending implosion of a near neighbor would likely mobilize and intervene. Still, questions remain over the ability to undertake and sustain such a deployment, which would be framed in term of humanitarian or invited “assistance”, but would undoubtedly be for security purposes.

It is worth noting that Australia had significant difficulty deploying to East Timor in 1999 and relied heavily on US logistical support. Should Papua New Guinea falter or fail, the prospect of the immediate evacuation of foreign nationals and a long-term power vacuum would certainly draw in external actors, both state and non-state.

Considerations for intervention in Australia’s near neighborhood continue to play out in defense strategy debates. Within Australian White Papers and asset procurement decisions, a key tension remains: whether there should be an emphasis on regional/neighborhood scenarios or on participating in global conflicts as a junior coalition partner (i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan and, in an historical context, Western Europe during the World Wars).

Without physical assistance and implicit support from the U.S., it would most likely be beyond Australia’s capacity to individually restore a central government in a large, nearby failed state. This would open the potential for other Asian nations to seek to provide “security” or “support” for their investments or broader defined “interests”. It could see powerful East Asian nations becoming active in the internal security of the failed state, with the potential for a de-facto military presence.

The intervention of a powerful East Asian nation would not necessarily trigger a response from Australia’s main security partner, the U.S., but it would be an interesting outcome if the intervening nation was another U.S. ally. Most likely, such an intervention would be gradual and not have an overt military component.

Within the South West Pacific, geopolitical competition is more broadly affecting the trajectory of small states. At times, the diplomatic contest between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China resulted in large sums of untied “aid” being injected, which stimulated corruption and eroded institutions in some of the smaller and micro-states. Criminal gangs also use some of these nations as bases. Historically, from a U.S. theater perspective and an Australian grand strategy view, these islands represent staging points for a hostile, advancing power.

To mitigate the potential security challenges posed by a future disintegration of these fragile states, three approaches are suggested.

First, a strategic approach to address Melanesian and Polynesian governance structures and real economic growth should be employed, facilitated via aid providers and donors when they share a common purpose. While Australia (and New Zealand) are not in a position to dictate the approach, they would be well positioned to influence its direction. This will become more relevant after the general election in Australia in September. Should, as polls suggest, the opposition Liberal-National Coalition win power, they are expected to re-orientate aid towards to Melanesia and Polynesia and away from Africa.

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Second, naval assistance and low-key Australia-led visits should be increased, to build rapport with local communities and prepare for the possibility of natural disasters requiring foreign assistance or intervention.

Third, there should be an expansion of cultural and language studies to cover Polynesia and Melanesia, concentrating the fragmented and minimal resources allocated by Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. (mainly through Hawaii). While these courses would be relevant to military and operational planners, ideally this area of study should form part of mainstream academia to help build a critical mass of skills outside government.

It is worth considering the above recommendations in the context of historical events. During Australia’s security debates in the 1960s and 1970s, there were calls for a forward military base in Papua New Guinea to deter potential adversaries. Asian nations now looking south to Melanesia and Polynesia, the calculations in 2013 may incorporate the same strategic considerations, only from a different direction.

Also, in the case of Japan during World War Two and fears of an expanding Germany in the early 1900s, these islands were staging posts to and from Australia. As a current disintegration of Melanesian and Polynesian nations would create a power vacuum, it must be remembered that Australia is not the only nation with a strategic interest in these islands.

Andrew Pickford is managing director of ISSA Indo-Pacific and senior fellow at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation.  This article was written as part of a Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leader conference project.