Last week, the Australian government released a discussion paper on defense. As in other mature democracies, it’s not easy to sustain support for defense spending when no threat is imminent. But Australia’s U.N.-authorized intervention in East Timor last year showed the risks of seeking defense on the cheap.

Defense spending having fallen below 2 percent of GDP, Australia proved unable to deploy fewer than 5,000 soldiers just off its northern coast without significant U.S. logistical support. Many of its major defense platforms also face obsolescence.

Unless the country develops and maintains a serious defense force with cutting-edge capabilities, it will lose credibility as a U.S. ally. That could be important if George W. Bush becomes president next year. The Republicans are likely to take a dim view of allies unable to make more than token commitments to military operations in defense of shared interests — for example in the Persian Gulf or the Taiwan Strait.

Some Australians think remote conflicts should not concern them. That view has been current since World War I, when Australia lost 60,000 (from a population of only 5 million) in distant conflicts. The conviction that Australians should not fight “other peoples’ wars” received another boost after Vietnam, in which Australia lost 500 soldiers in a conflict that most Australians regard as futile. With the United States in post-Vietnam strategic paralysis, and Britain having retreated from east of the Suez Canal, Australia lapsed into semi-isolationism.

But Australians willing to fight only on their own soil have never completely won the day. That’s because Australia lacks the population and resources to defend its vast continent against major attack. It cannot wait until an enemy appears on the beaches. That concedes all the initiative to the invader, while the defender’s forces are dispersed and kept guessing.

Major threats to Australia’s security have arisen as the consequence of the breakdown of security in distant places. In 1941, Japan struck southward, threatening Australia with invasion, because it took advantage of the breakdown of the global and regional balance of power. Because it’s too dangerous to wait until a threat of invasion has arisen, Australia has preferred to play its part in seeing conflicts resolved at a distance. So it has joined worldwide efforts to prevent Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union from exercising power in ways inimical to Australia’s interests.

The end of the Cold War removed threats to peace that emanated from Europe. But that is not the case in East Asia, where a stable balance has yet to emerge among the major powers. East Asia’s underlying problem is to contain tensions between the security interests of Japan and China, with the U.S. playing a critical role.

Australia, living in a region in which the balance of power remains unsettled, also faces conflict between its strategic and domestic imperatives. Australia’s intervention in East Timor was driven by public opinion, angered by Indonesia’s behavior. But Australia has propelled the Portuguese mestizo elite back into power in Dili, at huge cost to Australia’s strategic interests. Australia’s essential interests in Indonesia are the same as those of the U.S. and Japan — unity of the archipelago and maritime passage through the vital straits that link the Indian and Pacific Ocean. If other parts of the archipelago seek to follow East Timor on the path to independence, Indonesia could unravel.

Should that happen, the U.S. and Japan will not thank Australia for its Timor intervention. Had it been in power, a Republican administration in Washington may not have supported the intervention. Predictably, the intervention alienated Indonesia from Australia, which are both important to the U.S. There was also a predictable risk that the intervention would spark Indonesia’s disintegration. Currently, Christian-Muslim violence in Maluku shows the extent of the fraying at the periphery, which is a manifestation of weakness at the center. Increasing piracy in the Southeast Asian straits is another sign of Indonesia’s maritime weakness. If Indonesia turns to China for purchases of ships and submarines, as President Abdurrahman Wahid has foreshadowed, strategic tension will increase between China and Japan. Japan is already feeling Chinese pressure on its vital oil routes from the Gulf because China has strategic footholds both in the South China Sea and the western entrance to the Strait of Malacca.

As Australians debate their security policies, they are likely to conclude that they can no longer seek defense on the cheap. They are also likely to move further away from the neoisolationism of the 1970s. But they have reason to ponder the difficulties of securing their interests in an unsettled region.

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