ashthomas//blog: The Economist on Australia's peacekeeping role


Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Economist on Australia's peacekeeping role

The Economist has a short article this week about the role that Australia is increasingly playing in the region. Using the recent problems in East Timor as jump-off, it also describes the work that Australia has been doing in other South Pacific and South-East Asia countries such as the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Nauru.

Australia, despite having a population about 7% the size of the United States, has emulated that country's attitude of being an international sherrif, coming in to install order and keep things under control during periods of instability and crisis. In the region, it dons the sherrif badge almost alone (New Zealand and the occasional larger Asian nation sometimes assist); on the greater international scene, Australia is ready to take on a junior deputy role to assist the United States as one of its allie in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Economist suggests that Australia should not have to be the lone peacekeeper in the region:

Why should Australia assume all these burdens? The simple answer is that no one else is willing. Whenever things get tough in the South Pacific, the call goes out not to the United Nations in New York but to the prime minister's lodge in Canberra. This has been the pattern since the first big intervention in East Timor, in 1999, which Australia led and for which it provided more than half the troops.

Australia, a country of only 20m people, is already stretched by its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its often prickly relations with Indonesia and Malaysia and its strained post-colonial difficulties with PNG do not make it the ideal regional sheriff. It would be better for all if Asia could draw on something like the sort of institutional arrangements that Europe enjoys in the shape of NATO and the EU. That will not be easy. The two biggest powers of East Asia, Japan and China do not get on, and both are distrusted by smaller countries in the region. Yet a start could be made by the countries of ASEAN, a club of South-East Asian nations who have good relations and which, like the Europeans, are building a free-trade area. Even a small peacekeeping operation, or an informal agreement to work together, would be useful. Relying for ever on Australia alone is a recipe for trouble.

Much of the problem is that while the NATO countries and the EU share similar backgrounds and cultural backgrounds, there is not such a base-level consensus in Asia and Australasia. Australia and New Zealand have much more in common with the United States, Britain and Europe than they do with their closest geographical neighbours. Australia and New Zealand are western countries, part of the Western European culture, despite their being located in Asia/the South Pacific.

Beyond Australia and New Zealand, there is also little binding many Asian countries to each other. The effects of colonialism and war has meant that there is in Asia a strange mixture: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto etc religious groups, former and nominally Communist governments, nations that embrace western models and those that reject them, etc, etc.

As the Economist notes, getting some sort of agreement where all those countries can unite under one umbrella regional security organisation will be very difficult indeed.


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