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Dec 17, 1999 | 06:00 GMT

Australia's Future Role in Asia

Australia reasserted its desire for a proactive role in Asia Dec. 14 when Defense Force chief Adm. Chris Barrie said it is the "force of choice" to lead future U.N. peacekeeping operations. A position of military authority would benefit both Australia and Asia as a whole. However, Australia's lack of military resources will prevent it from playing a major role as the guarantor of Asian security. Barrie's statement is a response to a series of recent events affecting Australian foreign policy.

First, in September, Prime Minister John Howard's new proposal for greater Australian participation in Asian security caused an international stir. Barrie essentially echoed the Howard Doctrine's call with one major modification. The Doctrine called for Australia to act as U.S. deputy in Asia. Barrie modified this by calling for Australia to take the lead in Asian security concerns, diminishing U.S. influence.

Secondly, according to the Admiral, Australia's success as peacekeeping leader in East Timor proves its ability to lead "similar forces" in the region. Despite these claims, the country was widely criticized by other nations for their handling of the situation. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad implied that Australia used the situation in East Timor to assert its military might.

Furthermore, Australia's efforts have thoroughly soured relations between Jakarta and Canberra. Thirdly, Mahathir called on Dec. 2 for a refined regional security structure involving every nation in Asia. Most Asian nations, including Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, would prefer a reduction in U.S. interference in Asian security issues. Australia's call for U.S. forces to play a less substantial role in the region may be designed to appease the Asian urge for more independence. Meanwhile, with U.S. forces already stretched, the United States may find this an amenable solution.

Unfortunately, Australia's military resources are incapable of enforcing security in Asia. Australia's weak navy - with only eleven surface ships, seven amphibious ships and four submarines - limits its ability to project an effective policing force in the region. With its armed forces personnel totaling only 57,400, its forces-to-space ratio is only large enough to address its domestic security concerns. Australia would need international assistance were it to effectively provide military stability in the region.

Responding to the current events in the region, Barrie's comments illustrate Australia's ambitions for its future role in Asia. However, despite Australian aspirations of regional military leadership and the benefits such a position would provide, Australia does not possess the capabilities to head an Asian military bloc.
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