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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 12:25 GMT
Australia burdened by Pacific setbacks
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australian police and military in the Solomon Islands - 20/4/06
Australian peacekeepers are becoming a familiar sight
Is Australia losing its grip on the neighbourhood?

Some defence analysts believe that after a troubled year, Canberra's robust approach to regional affairs is beginning to unravel.

Since 9/11 and the Bali bombings in October 2002 the Australians have pursued a more aggressive role in matters close to home.

They worry that failing states could be exploited by terrorists or criminals.

Despite the intervention of Australian troops and police officers as well as doses of heavyweight diplomacy, 2006 was a bad year for the South Pacific. There was violence in East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Tonga.

A military coup robbed Fiji of its elected government and tensions have persisted in parts of Papua New Guinea.

"The crises of 2006 have reinforced the reasons why Australia is involved in the South Pacific, but they have undermined our confidence that we know what to do about it," said Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.


"[Prime Minister] John Howard's always had a sense that there was a lot of trouble brewing in the immediate neighbourhood but I don't think they (the Australians) ever expected to find themselves as deeply engaged in as many places for such protracted periods of time," Prof White, a former government adviser, told the BBC.

In recent times Australia has sent hundreds of soldiers and police officers to the region's trouble spots in addition to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last November's mission to Tonga was short-lived but Australia is looking at an almost permanent presence in the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

The appointment of Australian-born police chiefs in the Solomons and Fiji have ended in disaster with both men banished by disgruntled local officials.

Paternal views?

There are signs that resentment in the neighbourhood is mounting.

"Australian popularity is at an all time low and its (regional) policies are being severely weakened," said Dr Steven Ratuva from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

The Howard government is accused of being too paternalistic.

"Australia is more concerned with its own security in relation to terrorism and international crime to worry too much about the internal plight of the small island neighbours," cautioned Dr Ratuva.

Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, October 2006
Odd man out? Mr Howard has strained ties with regional leaders

"The basic security issue in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and East Timor is linked to internal political dynamics and economic development, not terrorism."

Generally Australia's efforts to help its smaller regional cousins are welcomed.

But there is a feeling that Canberra should take more time to listen.

A former member of the Solomon Islands parliament, Yukio Sato, said that a greater understanding of local problems was essential.

"Australia must get off its high horse and properly look at these issues from the same vantage point as a Solomon Islander. The root causes still lie in wait, as does a time bomb ticking away waiting to trigger yet another explosion," Mr Sato warned.

The Solomon Islands capital Honiara was hit by violent disturbances last April. Years of ethnic fighting across the archipelago prompted Australia to lead an international rescue mission in 2003.

Important steps to recovery have been made but the road ahead promises to be rocky.

The official view from Canberra is that Australia is committed to helping its island neighbours through difficult times and that aid and reconstruction efforts have been a success.

The eradication of corruption and poverty remain key goals for the future.

Analysts believe that Australia needs a keener appreciation of a diverse and volatile region if they are to be achieved.

"Australia hasn't yet found what else you send apart from the army to try and address those deeper political, social, economic problems that are the real root of the issue," said Prof Hugh White.

Undoubtedly countries in the South Pacific need Australia's help but they want to be seen as equal partners and not basket cases.

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