Arc of Instability
The phrase "arc of instability" was coined originally to describe the geopolitical consequences for Australia of the collapse of the Suharto regime, the economic impact of the Asian economic crisis in effectively destroying Indonesia’s growth economy, and the possible foreshadowing of the break-up of that Republic by the bloody separation from it of East Timor.
The setting up of East Timor as a separate state saw the destruction of Australia's security agreement with Indonesia. It also saw the development of deep resentment in official circles, as well as more broadly in the community, of Australia's role in the latter process. This was accompanied, despite strong Australian assertions to the contrary, by an accusation of an Australian indifference to, at best, and active encouragement of, at worst, further Indonesian dissolution with independence for West Irian, Aceh and possibly other parts of the Republic as well.
Among some analysts here and elsewhere an argument has been put that this course is inevitable; with the possibility emerging, as was put by the A.N.U. group on Indonesia to J.C.F.A.D., of a multiplicity of unstable mini-states — such as "several Bangladeshs, two or three Bruneis and a Solomon Island or two". Other pessimists suggest that the secular orientation of the old pancha sila ideology and the new appetite for democracy will fall victim to the increasing Islamisation of Indonesian political processes with an attendant anti-Westernisation and the creation possibly of a sympathetic environment for violent fundamentalist operations redolent of al-Qaeda terrorism. The Indonesian army, which for years played a secularising and stabilising role, may be drawn increasingly into violent manipulation of these political events and become a generator of emerging problems with transnational crime and terrorism being actively encouraged. Dependent always on civil resources for larger parts of its income, the military might become, on a larger scale, the source of a continuation of endemic corruption and enhancement of these divisive tendencies to ensure its continuing role in Indonesian affairs. Some argue that democrats and believers in Indonesian unity face an unequal struggle in developing transparent political and civil institutions and containing the possible downside of Indonesia’s determination in 1999 to decentralise governance to regions, with offers of autonomy to Aceh and West Irian.
Some Australians, particularly those whose sympathies are engaged by reports of acts of oppression in places such as West Irian, even suggest that these trends as well as being inevitable — the encouragement of terrorism, piracy and trans-national crime aside — are either desirable or of limited security significance to Australia.
Can I say that I believe that emphatically not to be the case? The success of Indonesia's democratic experiment as a unified Republic is in Australia's interest. The environment that would be created by its decomposition would pose major diplomatic, security and economic issues for this country. One of the vital planks of Australian security for at least the last forty years has been the fact that we have confronted a benign neighbour, determined to contribute to broader regional stability. A policy to experiment with alternatives would be, in security and in human terms, disastrous. This is so for the following reasons.
Bloody though East Timor's separation was, it would be nothing compared to this process. Secessionists in West Irian and elsewhere would be vigorously and bloodily resisted.
The environment with dissipating central control would be a fertile field for piracy, trans-national crime and terrorism.
This process would destabilise Southeast Asia, with large refugee flows to Malaysia and Singapore, and possibly also to us. These flows might link up with insurgency in the Philippines.
China might be activated (if this were accompanied by persecution of Chinese nationalists — some seven million) with the possibility of other powers being drawn into the vortex.
Serious problems would arise for the shipping lanes through which pass some fifty per cent of the world’s trade.
Of course none of this would happen overnight — it would be a long, drawn out process with manifestations of the problem and the complication of our policy continuing for years. It would be very difficult not to see pressures emerging for Australian military engagement in some of this. We are already committed practically to East Timor, and Indonesian fragmentation would substantially increase the economic and security problems associated with that commitment. We have recognised from the outset Timor's ability to enjoy a reasonable relationship with a stable Indonesia as central to ensuring the sustainability of that commitment.
In recent times analysts have extended the "arc of instability" to incorporate deeply troubled Melanesia as well. The stark assessment of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year was, "Unless the quality of government in the South West Pacific can be restored, and social and economic development resumed, we risk seeing our neighbourhood degenerate into lawless badlands, ruled more by criminals than by legitimate governments."
This eastern end of the arc encompasses Papua New Guinea, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. A.S.P.I. again assess the situation thus:
"Despite our best efforts, the continued viability of P.N.G., the Solomons and Vanuatu as nation states is now uncertain. Their governments are weak, transient and hard to deal with. Corruption is rife and control over territory is uncertain. Economies are stagnant and law and order is poor. Their ability to resist penetration by outsiders — whether states or non-state entities — is almost nil."
Australian policy towards this area, one nation which we once administered, over the last two decades has been something of a paradox. Since the creation of the Australian nation we have regarded the South Pacific generally, and Melanesia in particular, as an Australian sphere of influence. In a superb speech recently, A.B.C. correspondent and South Pacific expert, Graeme Dobell, quoted Bob Menzies in April 1939,
"I have become convinced that in the Pacific Australia must regard herself as a principal, providing herself with her own information and maintaining her own diplomatic contacts with foreign powers . . . It is true that we are not a numerous people, but we have intelligence and resources, and I see no reason why we should not play not only the adult but an effective part in the affairs of the Pacific."
Shortly after that statement was made we absorbed the geopolitical lessons of the region’s significance to us, bitterly, in World War II. We recognised that a hostile power moving across the arc could effectively strangle Australian communication with allied help and directly position itself to attack Australia. We have since run a mini-Monroe doctrine which assumes that we have to pursue policies that would keep any threatening presence from the region, whether that threat is state or non-state based. As the colonies emerged as states in the 1970s we have put ourselves at the forefront of regional organisation and the way the region has defined itself. This has particularly been the case with the Melanesian states. We have seen ourselves as a sensitive ear to local national aspirations in its anti-colonial aspect — S.P.N.F.Z. for example. In the last two decades this has extended to offering security guarantees. We responded first to P.N.G.'s desire for a security treaty in the late 1980s, and this has in a process described by the military as "map creep" extended to most of the other Melanesian states as well. The Pacific patrol boat programme, over which I presided, combined security and economic aspirations and has placed some 70 R.A.N. personnel through the region and, with aid to internal policing operations, has reinforced an image of Australian acceptance of responsibilities.
This Government's 2000 White Paper stated the situation thus: "Australian interests in a stable and secure Southwest Pacific are matched by significant responsibilities as leader and regional power. We should be very likely to provide substantial support in the unlikely event that any country in the Southwest Pacific faced substantial aggression." In 1987 on the Joint Declaration of Principles with P.N.G. we said, "Australia would be prepared to commit forces to resist external aggression against P.N.G."
What we have never made clear is the extent to which Australia is involved in the real security problems confronting all the states — their internal law and order. Only in P.N.G has there appeared to be the capacity for internal breakdown to trigger circumstances which might engage the national security guarantees.
The September 11 and Bali terrorist attacks have transformed these law and order issues in Australian security terms. The breakdown of financial accountability and official corruption are lending themselves to the ability of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, increasingly hampered by intelligence organisations and government attacks on global movements of their money, to launder it through Pacific Islands. A similar breakdown of official services permits the possibility of passports being purchased for the movement of terrorists. Likewise shipping controls can be evaded with the corrupt selling of flagging arrangements. If finally a government gives way to brigandage and gang rule, circumstances of economic desperation augment the possible emergence of linkages being established with terrorist organisations in the criminal world of drugs, gun-running, piracy and illegal people movement. Our combination of Monroe doctrine and policy neglect is no longer tenable.
The question arises as to how much of this is a foreign policy problem and how much of it is a defence matter? Does this situation challenge long-standing Australian defence policy? Does it compel a reordering of priorities? Are these affordable within current budgetary parameters?
In the first instance, this is a foreign policy problem. The starting point of resolution lies in the changing attitudes to what is significant to us in that area. An appropriate initial area of examination is Indonesia.
1. We must make it clear that we are engaged — Bali offers us a way back in and we are taking it.
2. We must consistently be clear that we support Indonesia's unity (we have allies in this — regional and external powers such as the United States, the P.R.C., India, and A.S.E.A.N.). No state has an interest in the break up of Indonesia, particularly in the context of Southeast Asia terrorist threats.
3. We must engage the party political process without preference as to political outcomes except for maintenance of democracy. We do not have an interest in encouraging T.N.I. political activities — not the old T.N.I. — susceptible to rogue influence. We need to engage with all political parties supporting democratic outcomes.
4. There should be a strong acceptance of regionalism.
The circumstances in Melanesia are different. Here the society's greatest strength is its greatest weakness. Deep kinship — wantok — is reflected in land tenure issues, which make the development of civil and private economic infrastructure almost impossible. Likewise the ability to develop transparent, disinterested governance is impeded.
Current aid programmes are as susceptible to the same chronic failure as any other efforts. Our accepting responsibility is a start, as is our working to resolve population problems. Subsistence agriculture is not sustainable. Cities and towns are dominated by problems of law and order arising from chronic unemployment.
Should all this change the structure and priority of Australia's defence forces? The nub of the question is, should we abandon our focus on defending Australia as our first priority, or should that be extended so that there is a priority to create a capacity to intervene in the region? This dovetails with another debate over whether Australia’s defence forces should be fashioned around collaboration abroad with our principal ally. Most European nations have abandoned the idea of national territorial defence as the Cold War recedes; should Australia do likewise? New Zealand has completely restructured along these lines in our own region. Australia once had such a view at the core of national strategy. Should we have it again?
My answer on these questions is that we should stick with national strategy based around defence of Australia and its approaches, albeit with an eye to possible engagement elsewhere. Why do this?
Australia does not have European luxuries. While an attack on Australia is very unlikely to arise out of these circumstances and other developments later on stemming from the possibility of more intense strategic competition between the United States and China, it is impossible to project out beyond ten to fifteen years with any confidence.
Australia is a wholly maritime power — one of the few in the world. Any capacity to secure our approaches will need to rely on maritime capability — both sea and air — and these are the big ticket items in the defence budget.
The technology gap between Australia and her neighbours means that we are militarily the most powerful country in terms of reach beyond our immediate borders in the region. India and China are our closest competitors in this sense, and we are capable of sustaining this position through networking weapons systems and intelligence information.
There is a substantial time lag on acquisition of platforms and the training of personnel to staff them.
While no threats are immediately evident, the consequences of failing to have the capabilities to deal with potential threats are daunting, and the knowledge that they cannot be developed overnight means that ordering Australia's force structure priorities around self-defence should be sustained.
However, this does not constitute the end of the matter. Priority may be given to defending Australia as the long-term force determinant, but as experience has shown over the last twenty years the most likely experience of Australian service personnel is that they will be otherwise engaged, and engaged frequently. Some of that engagement has been alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan; some has been with United Nations peacekeepers and warfighting, and some of it has involved activity in the arc with the United Nations or on our own. How have we stood up, and what adjustments should be made?
No adjustments appear to be needed for alliance partners. The United States has surged ahead of the rest of the world militarily and technologically.
But what of the arc where the Americans might not be engaged? The truth is that we have made substantial adjustments. Our wake up call was not East Timor, but Fiji in 1987. In the 1980s Australia's defence planners began to take seriously the guidance it received through its aid programmes on the growing defence requirements in the South Pacific region. They responded through surveillance and aid programmes:
1. In 1983 P3 surveillance began. There was a substantial increase in maritime patrols.
2. Pacific patrol boat programme and engineering works commenced around the boats operations.
3. Increased assistance in defence co-operation with police and paramilitary services provided permanent windows to the activities of law enforcement officials.
That a local crisis might require an Australian military presence or intervention became clear in the 1987 coup in Fiji. To this point a major concern has been the question of the protection and evacuation of the many Australians in the region. The underpinning assumption was the acquiescence of local authorities. The lessons learned in Fiji led to the acquisition of the Kanimbla and Manoora to add to the capability of the Tobruk. A great deal more work has been done on army/navy collaborations and compatability since that time.
In regional terms Australia now has a considerable capability for intervention. In any particular case the question hence arises as to whether intervention is appropriate. In 2000, little noticed by Australians, we badly let down the Solomon Islands Government, who asked for extra police and instead was faced with an evacuation of Australians. The result was a collapse into lawlessness.
The question here was not capability, but rather will. Australia has an obsession with exit strategies, as it does with aid projects. The requirement in the South Pacific for force structure change, based on the Solomon Island example, is federal police. This should be added to our capability.
This coincides with our counter-terrorist response. The focus is not on the big ticket items, such as special forces and specialist troops, but on police and intelligence. Likewise we need to find local authorities to work with.
We cannot know the dimensions of these problems which we may confront in the future, but we do know that while they are threatening to Australian interests they are not threatening to our national survival. Over the last decade we have provided a considerable increase in our sea lift capacity. We now have options. The question remains as to whether those options should be further enhanced at the expense of destroyers and FA-18 replacements. I think not.
National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003