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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Australia's new taste for intervention

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

These are radical times for Australia's foreign policy. Canberra's view of the South Pacific has fundamentally changed, as its commanding role in the multi-national force in the Solomon Islands has shown.

Australia's more aggressive approach to regional matters is, according to John Henderson from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, down to one event - the Bali bombings. Eighty-eight Australians died in an attack last October that pushed the nation to the frontline of international terrorism.

Investigators search the site of the Bali bomb
The Bali bombing made Australia feel vulnerable
"Australia felt threatened," Henderson told the BBC, "and as failing states (such as the Solomon Islands) were deemed a threat to Australian security, intervention was justified."

The new approach has its critics. Jon Fraenkel from the University of the South Pacific has said the mission in the Solomons is fraught with problems.

"The Solomon Islands is to be transported back to the twilight of colonial rule," Mr Fraenkel wrote, "when colonists wrestled with the problem of... nurturing responsible leaders."

Australia's backyard includes some of the world's most vulnerable nations.

Tiny Nauru has faced accusations of money laundering, while Papua New Guinea faces a raft of social, economic and political challenges. Some observers see the Solomons intervention as a warning to PNG that Canberra won't stand idly by while its neighbours fail.

"I'm sure it is intended as such though it could also backfire badly," said Sinclair Dinnan from the Australian National University (ANU), "as Australia is already seen as insensitive and bullying by many in the PNG political establishment."

"I suspect a much more interventionist approach," Mr Dinnan explained to BBC News Online, "though primarily through the development assistance programme rather through armed intervention."

So aid rather than military muscle could determine Australia's influence on the region. Another Solomons-style rescue operation is unlikely.

An Australian soldier (C) gives out sweets to children in Auki, the capital of Malaita
The Solomons public has welcomed the peacekeepers
Speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland, Mr Howard said assistance would now come with strings attached to promote sound governance.

"Increasingly in the future Australia will be saying as a condition of aid that corruption must be eliminated," he said.

The broad feeling is that the Pacific states will welcome help from Australia, the region's superpower. What they won't stand for is being told what's good for them.

Fiji's Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, warned if Australia made financial relief too much of a political tool, it might be rejected. "We also have the right to choose whether we accept the aid as an independent and sovereign state," Mr Qarase said.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, also warned outsiders against interfering in his country's unique affairs.

"Take PNG - you cannot run 1,000 tribes and put them as a government, you cannot run the societies that we have run. We've made a success of it," he told the forum.

Security, economic stability and corruption will dominate this year's meeting.

Australia's focus on law and order could see aid directed away from traditional areas of concern such as poverty.

John Howard has repeatedly warned that "failing states" could become havens for terrorists.

Former Australian defence adviser, Adam Cobb, agrees.

"There is a growing body of open source evidence on this," he told the BBC. "Indonesia and Malaysia are problem areas and the Pacific provides low-level pathways, such as easy access to visas and false passports, into and out of these places."

Others aren't so sure, and believe Australia's aggressive interest in the Pacific is meant for audiences far beyond the region, as well as voters at home.

"My own feeling is that this kind of rhetoric is designed to appeal to Australia's fellow members of the 'coalition of the willing' (the US and Britain) and Howard's domestic constituency," said the ANU's Sinclair Dinnan.

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