Australia moves to engage more fully in South Pacific

A proposal for European-style regional cooperation includes peacekeeping in Solomon Islands and economic integration.

For Australia, a country sometimes worried about looking like a neocolonial power, the image of its troops patrolling the Solomon Islands is arresting.

But Australia is shaping a new and controversial course for itself and its neighbors with a European Union-style proposal for regional cooperation. Under the new initiative, smaller South Pacific island states would give up some independence and strengthen ties with Canberra for the sake of long-term stability.

In recent months, Australia has watched with growing concern the ethnic violence and corruption in countries like Nauru and Kiribati. Coupled with fears that unstable nations could become havens or transit hubs for terrorists in the wake of Sept. 11 and the Bali bombing last year, the regional heavyweight is moving to engage more fully with the its neighbors.

"It would be very important to tread carefully so as not to smack of colonial attitudes - but we have to get away from the concept of nonengagement in the region, as that could spell disaster for Australia in the long run," says Ellie Wainwright of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which first recommended military intervention in the Solomon Islands to the government.

The 2,225-strong force there, spearheaded by Australia, reached the archipelago last week, and is just one part of Australia's strategy. Prime Minister John Howard is also looking to boost flagging econo mies by proposing that nations of fewer than 100,000 people - like Tuvalu, Tonga, and the Cook Islands - pool resources such as airlines and police to improve their finances. Airlines, in particular, have been a draining and expensive symbol of sovereignty among many of the poor island nations.

As a part of the aggressive new strategy, Mr. Howard has even threatened to hold back millions of dollars in aid if governments fail to curb corruption and disorder.

Howard plans to raise the new plan at the Pacific Island Forum in New Zealand this month.

"It will send a signal to other countries in the region that help is available if it is sought, that we do have a desire to help all the peoples of the Pacific to have conditions of law and order and hope and peace and stability for their future generations," Howard said in a speech to the intervention force, which includes troops from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga, before they left for the Solomons.

This position stands in sharp contrast to a foreign affairs report in February,which had categorically ruled out such intervention on the grounds that it reeked of neocolonialism. Opposition lea-der Simon Crean and the Greens party have supported the new initiative, hoping it will avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer arrived in Honiara, the capital, Thursday to welcome a weapons amnesty and reiterate that work remains to be done.

Some experts believe the success of coalition forces in Iraq, which included Australians, has given Canberra hope that the new policy might work.

Local residents were very supportive of the hundreds of Australian soldiers in full combat gear who arrived on the white sands of Red Beach. It's the biggest military operation in the region since World War II, when American soldiers landed on the Solomons to fight the Japanese.

Many of Australia's island neighbors became independent in the 1970s. Suddenly thrown into a world of modern nation states, which sat uneasily with their traditional societies, they were unable to cope. Drug smuggling, gun running, and corruption soon became rampant.

But not all countries have made a decision about Canberra's recommendation. "We do not yet have a position about Mr Howard's new ideas - my government still has to consider the whole proposal," says secretary of Tuvalu, Panapasi Nelesoni.

For its part, Fiji says it will give Australia full backing. As one of the larger Pacific nations, with a population of about 800,000, Fiji is more stable economically, but still suffers political problems.

The proposal also breaks with Canberra's past economic policy. "Australia's policy in the past has been to give increasing amounts of aid to the South Pacific countries in the hope that they would use it to solve their own problems," says Ms. Wainwright.

Aid to the Solomon Islands has tripled to around $24 million in the last three years.

But achieving regional security is Australia's main aim, adds Wainwright, who is putting together a report for the government on regional cooperation.

"It's no longer good enough to say, 'Well if a state fails that's too bad,' because that failure can come back to bite us," said Prime Minister Howard.

Counselor of the Fijian High Commission, Akuila Waradi, says countries in the region look to Australia as "the engine room" of economic prosperity. "If we now embark on a road where we all do trade rather than just receive aid from Australia. That can only be a good thing."

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