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Sep 26, 1999 | 05:00 GMT

Rhetoric and Reality: The Limits of Australia's Ambitions in Asia

Summary

Australia's new activist stance toward Asia is unrealistic, as the country currently does not have the power projection capabilities to back up such a claim. At the same time, this new policy alienates Australia from its Asian neighbors, possibly pushing them closer to China and destroying the benefits of Australia's previous policy of engagement.

Analysis

Australia has "a particular responsibility to do things above and beyond" in Asia, said Prime Minister John Howard, announcing the policy now being referred to as the "Howard Doctrine." However, his vision of an expanded Australian role in Asia is unrealistic and likely to hurt Australia's relations with other countries in the region and with its powerful neighbor to the north - China.

In a Sept. 22 interview with The Bulletin, Howard announced that following its leadership role in the multinational force in East Timor, Australia would upgrade its defense forces and take a new place in Asia. "We have displayed our responsibility, shouldering the burden we should have," he said, adding that the East Timor action had "done a lot to cement Australia's place in the region."

Howard clearly indicated his pro-Western orientation in the interview, going so far as to suggest Australia should be the United States' "deputy" in the region. The statements were a far cry from the Asian principle of noninterference, marking a significant change in foreign policy. Australia had previously attempted to assert its identity as an Asian nation and engage its neighbors, as seen in its dialogue with Myanmar and its support for China's World Trade Organization bid.

Is Australia even capable of assuming the new role it has chosen? Howard has promised increased defense spending, but the effects of that spending will take years to blossom. At present, Australia does not possess sufficient power projection capabilities to carry out its new mission.

Australia currently has some 60,000 personnel in its armed forces, with plans to decrease that number to 50,000 in the next decade, though the percentage of combat troops is to increase. Approximately 2,400 Australian troops are in East Timor right now, and 2,000 more are expected to join them. Despite this limited deployment, questions have already surfaced about the possible need to reinstate the reserve forces.

Australia also lacks naval resources, which are vital for operations in Southeast Asia. Surface ships include three destroyers and eight frigates, but no aircraft carriers. Its amphibious capabilities are limited to two landing ships, one of which was to be decommissioned in 1998, the other without beach landing capability.

Although Australia's military is comparable or greater than most of its neighbors, the majority of these forces are tied to land. Its lack of a strong navy and its limited amphibious capabilities severely impede the country's capacity to project force beyond its borders. Any attempt to police the region will be severely handicapped without outside support.

In spite of its dubious foundation, the Howard Doctrine has already begun to alter regional relations. The reaction from other Asian leaders to Howard's statement has been less than enthusiastic. Indonesian-Australian relations, of course, are already strained to the breaking point, and it appears as though the rest of the region is now backing away from Australia.

Thailand called Howard's plan "inappropriate" and asserted that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "must play the primary role in Southeast Asia." Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Azmi Khalid was more blunt. He told The Sun, "We are actually fed-up with their stance, that they are sitting in a white chair and supervising the colored chairs." He also asserted that Australia's role in East Timor does not necessarily apply to the larger picture.

These reactions are important indicators of regional sentiment, but the combination of distance (with the exception of Indonesia) and similar deficiencies in power projection make military conflict unlikely. Of greater concern is whether the "Howard Doctrine" will cause Australia's neighbors to lean toward China.

Both China and Australia have improved their relations over the past few years. Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Australia several weeks ago, and both countries have exchanged defense ministerial visits. Although China has not yet responded to Howard's statements, it is safe to say that the improved Australian-U.S. relationship implicit in his words is something China definitely does not want to see. This new policy threatens the tenuous connections between the two.

The Howard Doctrine made much of Australia's unique situation as a Western civilization with links to Asia. Indeed, for much of the past decade Australian diplomacy has focused on creating links with its Asian neighbors and bridging a Western-Asian gap. However, Australian advocacy for East Timor combined with Howard's statements have firmly placed Australia in the Western camp. Australia is not yet able to undertake its newly stated role, though it has already separated itself from the rest of the region. Thus it is currently unable to reap the benefits of its new policy or those of its previous policy of engagement.
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