Friday, May 13, 2005

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Australian police 'may quit PNG'

*Touchy touchy situation*

Some background: Living in Singapore, we no doubt are in a very interesting position vis a vis our neighbours. Most particularly, because of our small size and absolute lack of anything looking like natural resources with the exception of our human capital, it makes very very good sense for us to trade not just within the region but also around the World.

We don't pose a threat to any heavy lobby group (manufacturing and agriculture) and cheap imports help us not just in terms of keeping prices down but also forcing us to move up the value chain.

The significance of this situation is that coupled with our history of immigration and our colonial links in the past, Singapore has become what some expats call Asia 101, and to others, a mini L.A. (we have much nicer environment though, our name as the Garden City is well earned I feel). We are in essense a bridge country, linking West to East, North to South, 1st World and 3rd World (which should sum the major geopolitical divides).

Australia occupies a similarly interesting position, under its previous PM Paul Keating, it attempted to position itself with Asia. This suffered a major reversal under current PM Howard and Australia found itself in alignment with the US. The point came when Howard declared that Australia was the US 'Deputy Sheriff' in the region. This was of course not received well in Asia, and especially not when Australia took on the task of providing most of the forces for the East Timor Leste transitional peace keeping force under the UN.

However, this has changed particularly with the Bali Bombing where there was unprecedented cooperation between the Australians and Indonesians, who found to their mutual surprise a mutual affiability and ability to work together. Things further improved when Australia was one of the first nation to send massive waves of aid both direct and indirect in the immediate aftermath of the tragic Tsunami. Taiwan likes them because of their treaty with the US in which Australia promises to back them in the event of an invasion, and that is perhaps the major reason why Australia is wary of signing the non-amenity pact. It means it cannot go up against China should the need arise i.e. the US calling on it for help. This is further complicated by the rather fantastic relation Australia has with both the US and China and is poised to become the first developed nation to have Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with both powers.

Now all these may seem hunky dory and the immediate question would what does this article got to do with anything. The answer comes from the phrase 'arc of instability'. First termed in 2001 by either the Economist or Foreign Policy, what it refers to are the arc of neighbouring nations (Pacific Islands) of Australia which have the potential to explode or impode into economic depression or worse (become drug and terror havens), dragging them down together with them. As such, perhaps Australia might be wise to look closer to home and settling them before venturing abroad (it's actually a false dicotomy, one really ought to be doing both). As is happening, Australia has reversed its prior policy of non-intervention to one of intervention and has sent aid and help to the various nations.

Hence, direct aid from Australia to Papua New Guinea comes in the form of policepersons to keep the peace and restore stability. PNG is particularly important as it is the biggest and most unstable Pacific Island. Furthermore, it neighbours on the very same island, Papua, controlled by the Indonesians after a separatist war. Should the situation deteriorate, Indonesia might find itself in the uneviable position of having to DO something. Should that happen and the UN is called in, the only compromise that would be workable would be a joint Indonesian-Australian Peacekeeping force.

A pure Indonesian force might be questioned not simply on its capabilities but also the mistrust of the armed forces in general ever since the various wars in the 70s. And it is unlikely that the various separatist movements in that region is going to take kindly to what they mgiht end up viewing as a preemptive strike on them in the midst of a ceasefire.

On the other hand, a pure Australian force might get grumbles of East Timor and also questions of their effectiveness and effeciency. Indonesia would not look kindly on them on what is close to their soveriegn soil even with their new found chumminess.

But even a joint force is not ideal, there is still some suspicions between the forces and furthermore the difficultly will arise from attempted to combine two forces who have yet to work together on any major exercise or mission as this peacekeeping mission will be.

So hopefully, before that situation arises, things will improve.



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