SYDNEY — Australia is far from happy about becoming the unofficial, reluctant policeman of the South Pacific. The latest tally of young, politically inept countries that expect Canberra to keep the peace for them has risen to four. And that’s not counting the nearest potential hot spot, Indonesia’s eastern province of Papua. Papua’s ethnic-political problem, both Jakarta and Canberra agree, is an international no-go zone.
* In nearby East Timor, domestic tensions and violence are bubbling up again. East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta has urged the United Nations to send in a “robust” force in the lead-up to elections if fighting escalates. It was through an Australian-led U.N. police action that this former Indonesian province attained independence seven years ago.
* Papua New Guinea faces festering problems of tribal tensions and corruption at high levels. In the capital, Port Moresby, Australia’s efforts to help clean up official waste were stymied by a PNG Supreme Court decision that forced Canberra to remove police sent to help fight crime. Competent Canberra public servants trying to bring order to public accounts wonder when their marching orders will come.
* Fiji has been revisited with ethnic tensions that have long sapped its sugar-based economy. The largest Pacific island nation after Papua New Guinea has a complex mix of 55 percent Melanesians, 38 percent ethnic Indians and a minority of ethnic Chinese. Indians were once the dominant group until two coups in the past decade forced many to leave.
* The Solomon Islands is a trouble spot that really riles Australian taxpayers. There Canberra once thought it might have won a few brownie points for trying to sort out a corrupted economy and restore fair administration. Instead, the world is looking aghast at the latest outbreak of burning and looting in the capital, Honiara, and expecting Canberra to restore decent governance.
The Solomons, described in tourist blurbs as a necklace of idyllic tropical isles, is far from that at present. That it is languidly laid back in the hot sun is half the problem for sound self-government and administration. The other half is tribal and ethnic tensions. Mix in seemingly endemic corruption and the stage is set for yet another bloody outbreak.
Since independence in 1978, this string of islands east of Papua New Guinea has seen periods of prosperity slashed by civil war, a coup, democratic government collapses and, now, resentment toward law enforcement by Australian troops.
The fragility of the new government formed under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, a martial arts expert, can be gauged by the fact that the new police minister is in jail and so is the culture and tourism minister. This pair landed behind bars after an earlier elected prime minister, Snyder Rini, was toppled from power after only weeks in the job.
Meanwhile, Honiara’s bustling market center, China Town, was burned to the ground and looters armed with machetes roamed the streets. Many Chinese residents were airlifted to safety in Australia. Chinese traders and investors figure strongly in the rise and fall of Honiara. Some of the Solomons’ ethnic Chinese residents have worked there for generations, running hotels and the fishing and timber logging industries. How well these economic mainstay industries recover will determine the country’s pace of recovery.
Both China and Taiwan have been quietly working behind the scenes. Six Pacific island countries recognize and support Taiwan. The competition for hegemony is a diplomatic nightmare for other major Pacific powers. Beijing calculates the time is ripe for China to supplant Taiwan as the Solomons’ biggest ally.
Before the dramatic election rerun, the ambitious Sogavare indicated a switch to China. Now as prime minister he will need Beijing money to fund recovery. The inducement for Beijing to be generous is clear. The Solomons offer a beachhead for influence in the rest of the Pacific.
Twice before, leaders of Melanesian island countries have tried to trade influence between China and Taiwan with bloody outcomes. Bill Skate lost an armed takeover bid for Papua New Guinea in 1999, and Serge Vohor in Vanuatu in 2004. Then as now, Canberra, the largest aid donor in the region, stabilized the tottering administrations — and received grudging thanks.
Now Canberra is again copping a stick to restore order. The largely Australia-funded Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) runs a police force that saved Honiara as it did in the previous law-and-order breakdown three years ago. RAMSI was invited to restore order among the 500,000 people after four years of civil unrest.
This time RAMSI moved in too late to save China Town but early enough to ensure an orderly transfer of parliamentary leadership. Despite 25 RAMSI police injured in the streets, Australia and New Zealand are again boosting the peacekeeping force to 450.
As Sogavare threatens to toss out Honiara-based Australian administrators trying to clean up an economic mess left after years of government corruption, Canberra faces a thankless diplomatic task. But it cannot stop spending more than $200 million a year to repair the mess.
Prime Minister John Howard is determined to keep funding rescue missions to those regional basket-case states that ask for help. As he explains, failed states create power vacuums that are eventually filled. The Howard government believes it is prudent to help young democracies grow without Big Power pressure. The China-Taiwan struggle for hegemony is a reminder of what can happen.
Hence the anxious eyes on East Timor. Xanana Gusmao, president of the region’s newest, poorest country, has been briefing Margaret Twomey, Canberra’s ambassador to the capital, Dili, on the latest twists in tribal power play.
For 800 Australians trying to bring prosperity out of chaos in East Timor, the political maneuvers involving Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the pending departure of U.N. peacekeepers are only part of a vexing problem. Dili riots broke out following the sacking of 590 troops from East Timor’s western ethnic group. Ancient enmities against eastern tribes threaten to burst into full-scale insurgency.
As a world citizen, Australia thought it was doing its bit toward peace by keeping 200 troops in Iraq to protect Japanese reconstruction workers. Alas, not enough. Now comes news that a third contingent of 470 troops will leave for southern Iraq later this month.
In addition, in July a new deployment of troops — a 240-strong reconstruction task force — heads to Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province, a hotbed of Islamic Taliban insurgents.
Defense Minister Brendan Nelson is trying to assure everyone that with more than 2,000 troops deployed on foreign peace-enforcement missions, the thin red line is not overstretched.
“It’s the neighborhood, stupid!” is the blast sent out to Australian critics who decry Canberra’s willingness to keep repeating peace efforts in nearby island states.
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