Australia has always sat somewhat uneasily in its region. Obvious reasons for this are that we are a western liberal democracy; that our predominant culture is European-derived; that our economy, though comparatively small, is highly developed. These features tend to distinguish Australia from most of its neighbours.
Nevertheless we are here, and both we and our neighbours have to live with the fact, no matter how uncomfortable it might be from time to time. But it is true that Australian policy towards the region has not always helped make this necessary co-existence any easier: just as the policies and attitudes of some neighbours have likewise on occasion been unhelpful.
In comparison to some neighbours, especially the small south Pacific states, we are powerful. But this can be overstressed: we have a capacity to intervene, but it remains strictly limited. We do not have the resources to impose ourselves on neighbours which choose to go a different way. Any intervention by us can only be small scale and of relatively short duration.
With respect to our South-East Asian neighbours we have a kind of conventional military preponderance, in that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is capable of successfully defending us against regionally-based foreign attack. (However, there is no state in the region with either the will or, more importantly, the capability, to launch any significant attack on us.) We do not have the capacity to mount serious offensive military operations (as distinct from, say, retaliatory strikes) against opposition.
We have nevertheless played a significant regional role, notably since the end of the Cold War. Since the 1999 Australian-led INTERFET deployment, which helped clean up the mess (deliberately) left in East Timor by the Indonesian military and its militia creatures, Australia has been called upon to provide peacekeeping, peacemaking or reconstructive forces in a number of places.
In fact, our first major deployment of this type was as long ago as the early ’90s, as part of a much larger force sent to Cambodia under UN auspices to help rebuild and stabilise that country after decades of conflict and occupation.
One reason we find ourselves doing a lot of this work is that the ADF is generally good at it: better in fact than a lot of others. Even in overt conflict situations, like the Vietnam War, we were much better at winning “hearts and minds” in our small area of responsibility than were the Americans overall. More recently, we got out of the failed UN operation in Somalia with our reputation intact, whereas the US endured the humiliation dramatised in the movie Blackhawk Down and the Canadians got embroiled in a scandal involving abuse of innocent Somalis and a subsequent high-level cover-up attempt.
So-called “peacekeeping” or “peace support” operations in failed or destroyed states, along with large-scale humanitarian operations such as that conducted in Indonesia after the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, are typical of demands likely to be made on the ADF in the foreseeable future. The most recent case, the ongoing attempt to help stabilise East Timor after the collapse of effective government there, involves a significant deployment - perhaps 2,000 personnel all-up (with about 1,300 of these on the ground) - and, with other commitments, probably means we are currently as much “deployed” as is safe and sustainable.
In fact, capabilities for this kind of operation often compete for funds with the demands of an entirely different type of activity - so-called “coalition warfare”, where we operate with the US in one of its wars.
We have already made two significant mistakes in regional assistance policy. In 2000 we rejected pleas for aid from the Solomon Islands. And more recently, with an astonishing lack of foresight, we wound up our commitment to East Timor. In both cases our decisions were primarily due to resource pressures. Both have since blown up in our face, forcing later larger-scale re-deployments to the Solomons and now to East Timor. One reason for the resource pressures is the massive cost of participating and preparing for US-led coalition war.
Going to these coalition wars is costly enough, but not as costly as forever being ready for them on the scale Washington seems to expect. Because it involves so-called inter-operability with high-tech American force elements, it requires us to invest in multi-billion dollar projects like the Joint Strike Fighter and the Air Warfare Destroyer.
While such warfare is a part of being a US ally, Australia has allowed it to disproportionately dominate our strategic posture and acquisitions programs. In point of fact, no “coalition war” in which we have been involved would have turned out differently had we not been there. We are too small a power to make a decisive contribution to operations like either of the Iraq wars (1991 and the one which we helped start in 2003) or, say, a putative war with China over Taiwan.