Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 07:54 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 07:54 | SYDNEY

East Timor and the Australian Arc


Graeme Dobell

23 September 2009 11:39

The tenth anniversary of the Australian-led intervention in East Timor is a moment to contemplate the slow evolution of the Australian Arc. The Arc has had a variety of titles, most notably the Arc of Instability. It also answers to the inner arc or the Melanesian Arc. Other less complimentary titles have been applied: failed states, fragile states and (who could forget?) Alexander Downer's creation: 'busted arse countries'.

The members of the Arc obviously don't like being grouped together in this way. Because of its size, Papua New Guinea is especially resentful of being nominated for membership. But from the Australian perspective, a range of similar Melanesian-style problems run through the countries of the Arc. So call it the Australian Arc because that title captures a set of concerns held by Australia. And, importantly, it points to the reality that Australia has given security guarantees — formal or de facto —  to most of the countries in the Arc.

Australia doesn't have a defence treaty with East Timor of the sort it has with its former colony Papua New Guinea. But the deployment of Australian troops in East Timor over the past decade is the hardest evidence of the nature of this de facto guarantee. The Arc starts in East Timor and runs through Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The Autonomous Region of Bougainville is part of the Arc, whether it eventually votes to stay or leave Papua New Guinea.

Fiji doesn’t quite belong in this typology. Fiji generates plenty of headaches but at the moment it is certainly not subject to any formal or de facto security guarantee from Australia.

All this is a scene-setter for some thoughts on the significance of the tenth anniversary of the Australian troops landing in East Timor 'to restore peace and security' — especially the way it has quietly transformed into a semi-permanent deployment.

What was Indonesia's agony is now Australia's headache. The final sentences of the Defence Minister's press release on the anniversary point to the numbers involved in that decade, and hinted at Australia’s continuing security role:

Australian troops from every state and territory, both regular and reserve, have served in East Timor. Over the last ten years, approximately 44,000 individual deployments to East Timor have occurred, and of these, around 2,200 have been women. The work of INTERFET and its successor missions have been crucial in establishing the security conditions necessary for nation building efforts. Australia looks forward to a continued partnership with the government of East Timor, the United Nations and the international community to further consolidate stability in East Timor.

At the moment in East Timor, that continuing stability is being provided by 650 Australian Defence Force members alongside 140 New Zealand Defence Force troops. Just reflect on 44,000 individual deployments from a Defence Force that numbers just over 50,000. Australia's men and women in uniform (and police) are gaining considerable practical experience in the Australian Arc.

The models differ — military-led in East Timor, police-led in Solomon Islands and unarmed peacekeepers in Bougainville. A constant, though, is how such deployments become long-term, even open-ended. In the absence of casualties, Australia's voters seem quite prepared to support (or ignore) long-term commitments in the Arc.

The Interpreter has mused on Australia’s security responses and interests in East Timor and over 'exit strategies' for the UN. As someone who has long argued that you can't really have an exit strategy from your own region, I'd turn that issue on its head. Australia is attempting to make a difference, not make an exit. In a classic bush-carpentry manner, Australia has been learning-by-doing in the Arc. East Timor is one important part of the process. Solomon Islands is another. Bougainville is different again. This is truly making it up as you go along.

Calling it the Australian Arc indicates ownership. Ownership by default. It's the creation of an ad hoc response, not a premeditated plan, but it is ownership, nevertheless.

So now that we own it, what are we going to do with it?

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.