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Friday, 9 June, 2000, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Analysis: Australia's role in Asia
Australian peacekeepers in action in East Timor
Australian peacekeepers in action in East Timor
By East Asia reporter Clare Arthurs

The eruption of conflict in Fiji and the Solomon Islands has raised the question of the role of Australia - a 'Western' country in the Asian region.

Australia led the international peacekeeping force in East Timor, and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is leading a Commonwealth delegation to the troubled South Pacific.

Is it right to describe Australia as a regional superpower, and should it be taking on the role of local police officer?

Regional security force

Successive Australian governments have been determined to strengthen relationships with their neighbours in the region.

Alex Downer (right) meets Timorese independence leader Jose Xanana Gusmao
Mr Downer (right) meets Timorese independence leader Jose Xanana Gusmao
Many of the Asian-Pacific countries share the experience of colonisation and emerging nationalism, and share problems such as policing their borders against illegal immigrants, drug and arms smugglers, and illicit fishing.

As post-colonial instability causes tremors across the region, the need for a regional security force has been raised.

Unresolved border disputes, the reignition of tribal rivalries, separatist movements and environmental arguments are just some of the causes of tension in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia.

But while Australia has strong links with its neighbours in trade and aid, their relations are not always warm.

Oz dilemma

Australia's leadership of the international force in East Timor has embittered both Indonesia and Malaysia.

Australia Day celebrations in Sydney
Mr Downer says Australia would ignite fury if it intervened in every conflict
Australia's military and diplomatic policy focuses on the region, but even if it had the status of a leader, it lacks the resources to take a leadership role.

Mr Downer says Australia would ignite fury and be spectacularly unsuccessful if it loaded its ships with soldiers at every sign of conflict.

That leaves open the question of who should take such a role, and indeed if one is necessary given the increasing strength and co-operation in regional organisations and through bi-lateral links.

The Asian approach suggests Australia should avoid preaching democracy and human rights and move more quietly to promote these concerns and to define its place in the neighbourhood.

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See also:

07 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fiji spurns Commonwealth
06 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Commonwealth threatens Solomons
05 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Pacific unrest linked?
04 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Racism warning for Australia
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