Prime Minister John Howard is seeking a greater strategic role for Australia in the South Pacific and East Asia.P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore
NOT always does a long-serving and democratically elected leader cruise as comfortably across a national political scene as Australian Prime Minister John Howard has done in recent times. Not surprisingly, therefore, he announced policies designed to assert Australia's primacy in the South Pacific region and its environs and affirm Canberra's credentials for a larger role on the global stage.
In line with these policies, Howard announced in late August his decision to opt for "a major increase in the size of the Australian Army" and to effect "the largest single increase" in the strength of the Federal Police. Both these expansions were aimed specifically at enhancing Australia's "leadership role in contributing to security and stability" in the South Pacific and adjacent East Asian domain.
The expansion of the Army will help bolster the country's "capacity to contribute to coalitions in areas further afield where [Canberra's] interests might be at stake." No insight is needed to decipher Howard's intention to stay the course as a loyal lieutenant of the United States during its ongoing and future military operations in West Asia or elsewhere.
The latest Australian move reflects strategic thinking that is at variance with Howard's hesitation over a different but equally important international issue. As of mid-August, he was reluctant to send Australian troops to serve as peace-keepers in Lebanon under the United Nations auspices. He argued that he would not like to put Australian troops in harm's way in a situation where the U.N. Security Council had not resolved the issue of disarming Hizbollah, which Canberra saw as an international terrorist outfit.
Whatever be the diplomatic nuances in Canberra's strategic thinking, Howard left no one in doubt by early September that his view of a proactive external role for the Australian troops was a U.S.-friendly policy. All this is reminiscent of the heady days of the aborted "Howard Doctrine" of 1999, the key element of which was Australia's ability and willingness to be a lieutenant, or even a regional representative, of the U.S. These views attracted enormous flak from Australia's East Asian neighbours. Howard then portrayed Australia as a proactive U.S.-friendly military power with no ill-will towards its East Asian interlocutors and South Pacific neighbours.
Having succeeded in overcoming the backlash, Howard secured for Australia the coveted status of an original member of the East Asia Summit (EAS). It was in this context that he made his late August announcements. The shift in nuance means that Australia will play "a leadership role" in a theatre of interest but without invoking the image of being Washington's deputy or sheriff.
What then are the key military aspects of his new policies? The political packaging reads as follows: "In order to fully meet future regional and global security challenges, the government has decided to increase the size of the Army by two additional battalions. ... the Australian Defence Force (ADF) must be stronger, more versatile and adaptable. As recent events in East Timor and Solomon Islands have again shown, Australia has, and is seen to have, a leadership role in contributing to security and stability in our region. Regional states will continue to look to Australia for help, and we must have a capability to act in a manner commensurate with those responsibilities."
At one strategic level, the accent now was on the perceived expectations of military help from some tiny neighbours, such as East Timor or Solomon Islands, to set their own houses in order. The ADF's speed and professional skills were much in evidence when Australia rushed to East Timor to rescue it from a spiral of near-anarchic violence weeks before Howard announced the Army's expansion. His reasoning was all about "Australia's assistance missions to fragile states" in its neighbourhood.
Howard has added a categorisation of "fragile states" to the current classification system attributed to British diplomat Robert Cooper. In this, the nation-states are divided into failed states, modern states and post-modern states. The last of these applies to those looking beyond the status of developed economies, while the failed states are those reckoned to have lurched back to a pre-modern phase, or exist on the brink of possible extinction as recognisable political entities.
Unrelated but relevant to Howard's new perspective is a view expressed by Ruan Zongze, a Chinese expert on international affairs. Speaking at the Tsinghua Global Forum, which was organised on August 16 to discuss the current "disorder" in global politics, he said: "Different forces are [now] engaged in [a] heated competition in shaping a self-interested future." Surely, Australia's self-interest, no less than the fragility of some neighbouring states, dictated Howard's move to raise Australia's military profile at this stage. Canberra's reasoning for its latest military intervention in East Timor was that it should not be allowed to degenerate into a failed state, which could then pose a threat to Australia and others as a potential haven for terrorists.
In a sense, the political logic of Howard's military expansion is more striking than the actual numbers involved. While the first of the two proposed new battalions might be available for "overseas deployment" by 2010, "if necessary", the entire project, estimated to cost about 10 billion Australian dollars, would raise the Army's strength to only eight battalions.
As for the Federal Police, a new unit, a 150-strong Operational Response Group, would be formed to rush, at "short notice", to crisis-hit neighbouring states to restore and "stabilise" law and order situations. In addition, the project, estimated to cost about half a billion Australian dollars over a five-year period, would help raise the strength of the existing International Deployment Group from 400 to 1,200.
These numbers are by no means staggering, especially in the context of the U.S. military profile in East Asia. However, Australia is signalling its willingness and ability to act independently of the U.S. in the South Pacific-East Asian theatre, while remaining friendly to Washington in regard to its overall global agenda.
An early sign of this became evident in April. Just two weeks after joining the U.S. and Japan in forming a forum of Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, Australia signed a pact with China on the supply of uranium to Beijing. Howard asserted that "we do not see any merit at all in any policy of containment towards China". With the U.S. soft-pedalling such a policy in view of the escalating crises in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran's nuclear programme, Australia's political space is growing for any autonomous military moves. While Canberra's army-expansion is a limited military initiative, Howard's earlier uranium deal with China reflected a much more affirmative strategic choice.