The dispatching of Australian troops and Federal Police officers to the Kingdom of Tonga demonstrates just how much Australian foreign policy in the Pacific has changed in recent years.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard called the Tonga mission an “act of brotherly generosity”, but in the not-so-distant past Australia had been very reluctant to commit its security forces to tackle the domestic security problems of its Pacific neighbours.
As recently as January 2003 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer argued that sending Australian forces to Solomon Islands would be “folly in the extreme”. Earlier, in June 2000, Australia also refused the plea from then Solomon Islands Prime Minister Bart Ulufa’alu to stop a coup that eventually led to the dissolution of his elected government.
Contrast that with Australia’s current Pacific commitments, which include leading the state-building effort in Solomon Islands, a sizeable police and military contingent in East Timor, three warships on patrol near Fiji, and now the deployment in Tonga. Aside from these ongoing operations, another AFP operation in Papua New Guinea ended abruptly last year after the PNG Government refused to grant legal immunity to participating officers.
Australian policymakers, including Howard and Downer, explained that this drastic shift in Australia’s rules of engagement in the Pacific was necessary to prevent the emergence of failed states in the region.
While flagged as a reaction to an unfavourable change of circumstances in the Pacific, what recent Australian interventionism truly represents is a shift in Australian thinking about the nature and scope of the threats posed by development failures.
The so-called Howard doctrine in the Pacific epitomises the rapid shrinking of the gap between Australia’s security and aid policy objectives. This means that in the “toolkit” now available to Australian policymakers, military intervention is a mainstream option for engagement with developing countries in crisis.
What the Howard doctrine does not mean, however, is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of Australian colonialism. Quite the contrary: it is precisely the Australian attempt to exercise influence over the form and quality of governance in the Pacific without assuming responsibility for the fate of these countries that marks contemporary interventions.
It is in this context that we should understand the Tongan mission and others in the Pacific. These operations are designed to contain and manage extreme expressions of conflict, while “softer” aid programs attempt to build the capacity of Pacific states to manage future conflict and to provide suitable conditions for private sector-led development.
But what are the limitations of such an eclectic policy mix? A good place to start is the current emphasis donors place on state building.
It has been commonplace in the development literature in recent years to talk of the “return of the state”. In the 1980s and early 1990s most economists and development experts tended to see the state as an obstacle to development.
Aid programs from those years tried to roll back the state and even set up parallel service delivery structures that bypassed state institutions. This was based on the assumption that the state in the developing world was inefficient and often corrupt.
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