Over the Horizon: long term implications of Australia’s engagement in the ‘arc of instability’

Ongoing instability in East Timor and social and political fragility in the Solomons, PNG and other Melanesian states call into question the sustainability and viability of Australian policy on the ‘arc of instability’ to our north.

In recent years, Australia has been prepared to inject troops and security forces into East Timor and the Solomons (twice in each case, always as part of a wider coalition with a formal mandate). The Prime Minister recently pointed to the ongoing potential for instability in the region as justification for the expansion of our own ADF and AFP force levels.


This persistent instability is rooted in a complex array of deep-seated conditions that are to a varying extent present across the arc: ethnic tensions within the nation, weak (or non-existent) institutions and institutional capacity, and problematic relationships between the state and society.

There are strong grounds for supporting a policy of pro-active intervention in neighboring fragile states in circumstances where political stability, security, and law and order have broken down, particularly when the Australian Government has been asked to intervene by either the relevant government or the United Nations. Such action will generally benefit the nation concerned and its civilian population in particular, but it is also consistent with protecting and securing Australian national interests.

More problematic are the issues of post-intervention engagement and support. Questions that particularly need to be addressed are how long to maintain a direct security presence, how to transition from a security focus to a development assistance focus, how to avoid dependency and moral hazard issues (where nations come to believe that all the really hard decisions will be made by others) and crucially, how to maintain the political will and capacity for effective and co-operative engagement between Australia and the fragile states in our region in the task of nation building and development.

The existence of multiple societies and languages within these nations, the limited role of market institutions, the lack of individual land tenure, and the ubiquitous strength of cultural affiliations to kin and family present huge obstacles to the emergence of a pro-development reform consensus.

Indeed, there is a tendency in some quarters to overlook the heterogeneous social dynamics inherent in the customary elements of Melanesian states which comprise multiple autonomous non-state societies. Some point instead to the alleged failures in the implementation of Australian aid as a cause of ongoing social instability in the region.

Such technocratic (or a-cultural) approaches easily slide into the view that we somehow know best in matters pertaining to the future of Melanesian societies. To the extent that these views find political articulation in formal policy, we run the risk of misconstruing the terms of our relationship with neighboring nations, to the detriment of our long term interests.

It is worth noting that these same factors are at work within Aboriginal Australia which is generally categorized as part of the broad bloc of Melanesian societies. In a very real sense, these are identical and parallel issues. The failure of Australian governments to satisfactorily resolve issues of Indigenous disadvantage within Australia, where there is no question of the state’s capacity to intervene directly and decisively, should give us pause when we contemplate the challenges of influencing and persuading neighbouring governments to adopt pro-development reform policies.

Hugh White, in a recent presentation at the ANU titled Many Interests, Few Answers, suggested that Australia needed to find some middle ground between a policy of post-colonial control and interference and the benign neutrality implicit in the adoption of development assistance strategies that are not obtaining adequate traction. He suggested that this would be a long term ‘generational’ task. It would need to be based on a deeper sense of shared objectives between ourselves and our neighbours. This will require that we rebuild strong relationships not just between governments, but ultimately between civil society in Australia and the neighbouring Melanesian nation states.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Rebuilding relationships is far from straight-forward. For example, the issue of opening Australian labour markets to nationals from nearby Pacific states appears to be a no-brainer. Pacific leaders have called for it. So has the World Bank. Such a decision would have myriad advantages: improved community understanding in Australia, meeting labour shortages in niche markets, economic benefits through remittances back to impoverished communities, and capacity building. Yet the present Australian Government in its recent White Paper Australian Aid, Promoting Growth and Stability made it clear that such a change was not on the agenda, and a future Labor Government would presumably find it even harder to do so given potential union concerns. As well as latent concerns about job security amongst working Australians, issues such as the cost implications for Australia’s health system (especially given the extent of HIV infection in PNG) are presumably also driving the policy cautiousness.
The paradox of course is that the international donor community expects developing nations to take even more momentous and politically difficult reform decisions as part of their process of social and economic development.

What is clear from the above analysis is that Australia’s current aid and security policy settings for engaging with our region are essentially correct, but that there is an unassailable case for establishing a broader policy framework which takes into account the deeply embedded political, social and cultural constraints operating within the nation states of our region. Such a framework would set down a pathway for much deeper engagement between Australia and the region at the level of civil society over the coming decades.

Perhaps the solution to the apparently intractable dilemmas confronting Australia and the arc of instability lies in the gradual development of notions of shared sovereignty between Australia, New Zealand and our Pacific neighbors, where the underlying assumptions do not require members of the Pacific community to give up fundamental cultural, social and political norms, but allow broader transnational interests to develop and flourish.

At their 2005 summit, the Pacific Islands Forum endorsed a regional co-operation framework in the Pacific Plan aimed at enhancing the prospects for greater economic and political integration. While clearly a significant development — it is listed in the White Paper as an ongoing priority – the initiative is relatively modest in its aspirations and does not appear to be characterised by any substantial public or political profile, nor any sense of urgency or momentum.

A more ambitious agenda would lay out a road map to explore options such as the progressive adoption of a regional free trade zone, a single currency, integrated health and education systems, a federated defence force, and ultimately a transnational parliament modeled to some extent on the European Union. In this context, Australia’s experience of federalism, which appears to be of decreasing relevance to our national future, may be of increasing importance and assistance in our transnational Pacific future.

Being fair dinkum about pursuing such an agenda requires more than crisis intervention and effective development assistance (though there is clearly a crucial and necessary role for both of these). It requires that we in Australia set about making changes to our own national institutional and policy frameworks which send signals to neighbouring states that we are serious about regional integration, but also respectful of their vibrant cultures and of the inherent sovereignty resident in each neighbouring state despite their political and economic weaknesses. Only then will we have a reasonable hope of establishing the win/win framework of long-term co-operative engagement which benefits these small fragile states in our region, but also serves Australia’s national interests.