ASPI’s decades: Australia’s island arc

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

Australia’s leading role in East Timor in 1999 and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (2003–2017) was vital work conducted as neighbourhood policy.

Canberra had done a reset—what Prime Minister John Howard called in 2004 ‘a new phase in its strategic role in the Pacific’.

Australia’s readiness to act had been brought into line with the interests it had always declared in the island arc running from Timor-Leste through Papua New Guinea into the South Pacific (with New Zealand supporting the other end of the arc).

ASPI’s work on East Timor and the South Pacific—then and since—has used a wide understanding of security. At a mid-point between ‘stand ready’ inactivity and colonial paternalism lies the policy ground where island needs and Australia’s interests come together.

As East Timor transitioned to independence in May 2002, ASPI released New neighbour, new challenge, prepared by Elsina Wainwright, identifying themes often revisited over two decades in the institute’s work on the nations of the island arc—diverse countries that share many similar problems.

With a ‘big stake’ in East Timor as a viable state free from foreign interference and serious internal unrest, Wainwright said, Australia must recognise the scale of the task, make a long-term and comprehensive commitment (properly funded and coordinated), give police priority, and build international support.

When Hugh White and Wainwright turned to Papua New Guinea in 2004, they argued:

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of Australia’s three top-priority foreign policy challenges, along with China–US relations and the future of Indonesia. The deep nature of the problems in PNG makes it perhaps the most difficult we face. It is the one which probably places the biggest demands directly on Australia, and the only one we face largely alone.

In a description that still echoes across Melanesia, White and Wainwright said that many of PNG’s long-term trends were negative, as things slowly but steadily worsened and institutions weakened:

A vicious cycle links failing service delivery, falling revenues and national fragmentation with increasing fragility of government institutions, poor economic performance and lack of legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the people. The longer this cycle continues, the more vulnerable PNG becomes. Underlying all of PNG’s problems are pervasive and systemic weaknesses in the capacity of the PNG state to provide effective government. While PNG has considerable assets, including many talented and dedicated people, it has not developed the capacity to govern effectively; and indeed that capacity has declined significantly.

When Ron May reported again later in the decade, PNG had recently completed its seventh post-independence elections, retaining its position as ‘one of the few post-colonial states to have maintained an unbroken record of democratic government’. Despite that achievement, PNG had a poor press because of low levels of development, falling social indicators and inadequate government.

Australia’s task, May wrote, was to contribute to a harmonious and viable society without being accused of compromising PNG’s sovereignty: ‘If Australia is seen as trying to impose its values and concerns on Papua New Guinea, or even of overwhelming Papua New Guinea with new development initiatives, its efforts could be counter-productive.’

In 2008, ASPI convened an ‘independent task force’ to report on a new relationship between Australia and the Pacific islands. One ambitious element added to the calls for improving relations, supporting better governance, enabling security and economic growth, and deepening the knowledge of Australians about the islands.

The big recommendation—an ambition spanning decades—was to integrate Australia’s island arc with Australia:

More broadly, the ASPI Task Force believes the best way forward in this endeavour lies in a regional integration of Australia and the Forum Island states conceived in the widest sense—not only in the liberalisation of trade and investment already under way but also in a measured opening of borders that would allow Pacific Islanders to work more easily in Australia and Australians to work more easily in the Pacific Islands, and, beyond that, in a growing interchange and cross-flow of people between Australia and the Pacific for a whole variety of positive purposes that would enrich both sides.

The terms and ambition of ‘integration’ would keep recurring in Australia’s discussion of the islands, becoming central to the Pacific vision Canberra offered in its 2017 foreign policy white paper.

If demography is destiny, Melanesia’s youth bulge foretells trouble in the decades out to 2050 because of the ‘clear correlation’ between civil conflict and youth bulges (the proportion of young adults aged between 15 and 29). In 2009, examining the nexus between demographics and security, Mark Thomson sought to map ‘the underlying demographic terrain upon which history will plot a course’.

Although Polynesia was close to being demographically stable, the prospects for Melanesia and Timor-Leste were of ‘serious concern’. By 2050, the populations of PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were projected to more than double from 2000 levels, while Timor-Leste would grow more than fourfold.

Economic growth rates for these nations were lacklustre, especially when compared with their population growth.

As statistical correlations go, the result was clear, Thomson reported: the likelihood of conflict was three times higher in countries with youth proportions of 40% or more than it was in countries with a proportion less than 30%. And Melanesia would continue to have youth proportions higher than 40%:

Youth bulge generations are born into societies in which the population is growing rapidly and traditional socioeconomic structures are eroding. It’s conceivable that the potential for unrest is heightened by having a high proportion of young people who are, by nature, inherently less risk averse.

The build-up of the Australian Defence Force meant that Australia would be ‘better able to render assistance in our immediate region than at any time since World War II,’ Thomson wrote:

Similarly, we’re now better able to control our borders than at any time in our history. Improved intelligence, surveillance and coordination and enhanced regional cooperation have been established, and the ADF’s ability to assist has been boosted by the acquisition of a new class of more capable patrol vessels. Should it become necessary to ramp up our border protection to meet a surge in unauthorised arrivals or other activities that threaten our security, we have a sophisticated and solid base to build on.

The message of Melanesia’s youth bulge for Thomson was that Australia must redouble efforts to assist and develop, to guard its strategic and humanitarian interests in the island arc.

The geography of the arc is immutable, but there’s plenty of mutability in the evolution of Australia’s strategy gaze, staring variously at an ‘arc of instability’, an ‘arc of responsibility’ and even an ‘arc of opportunity’.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.