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Friday, 20 February 1987
Page: 387


Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy) —by leave-In my capacity as Minister representing the Minister for Defence, I wish to make a statement on defence initiatives in the South Pacific and to incorporate that statement in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

The islands of the South Pacific have always been regarded as fundamental to Australia's strategic well-being. As long ago as the middle of last century, Australian leaders recognised that events in the islands to our North and East could have a decisive effect on our security.

This was proved correct in World War Two, when battles on land and at sea in the island chain to our north turned the tide of Japanese expansion. It was at Milne Bay that Australian forces won the first significant victory against Japanese land forces in the Pacific War.

It is absolutely vital to Australia that we not forget the strategic lessons taught by the Pacific War. Paul Dibb has said a self-reliant Defence Posture demands that we shape our defence capabilities to suit our environment. Likewise, it requires that we pay great attention to maintaining and strengthening the congenial features of that strategic environment.

In doing this we must of course go well beyond the specific area of defence. Our policies must encompass aid, trade immigration and a host of other issues.

But as the island groups of the South Pacific have developed into independent nations, they have developed their own strategic perceptions and concerns. This has increased the scope for co-operation in this field. This government is concerned to explore and develop the opportunities for defence co-operation among our island neighbours. We intend to give them the same priority as we give to our much older and more substantial defence relations which have been established with the nations of South East Asia over the last four decades.

Naturally the specific nature of our defence co-operation with the South Pacific requires careful adjustment to the needs and wishes of the countries themselves. Developing effective programs to meet those needs and wishes will be a major policy challenge over the coming years.

In this region, Australia's longest-standing defence relationship is with Papua New Guinea. With its geographical position, its relative size and its proximity both to Australia and to Indonesia, PNG is an important factor in Australia's security considerations.

Our close defence relations with PNG, continuous since World War Two are reflected in our largest Defence Co-operation Program.

In this statement I wish to focus on the efforts we are making to develop our newer defence relations with the other South Pacific Islands.

The island countries lie across important lines of communication between Australia and Japan-our major trading partner-and the United States-our major ally. They also lie across important trade routes and approaches to Australia's east coast, where many of our major population centres are located. An unfriendly maritime power in the area could inhibit our freedom of movement through these approaches and could place in doubt the security of overseas supply to Australia of military equipment and other strategic materiel.

The Government has recently decided upon a number of initiatives to help protect and extend the strategic interests we share with our island neighbours. These initiatives include:

moves to help island countries upgrade their national maritime surveillance systems by provision of patrol boats, naval advisory assistance and training;

deployments of RAAF long-range maritime patrol aircraft to the region;

increasing numbers of RAN ship deployments to the island countries; and

defence cooperation activities providing technical support to island defence and security forces.

The closer defence relations between Australia and the island countries now being forged will complement our older-established defence links with other countries in our region including those with our partners in the Five Power Defence Arrangements and with Papua New Guinea. Our activities in the South Pacific are being developed in close consultation with our allies the United States and New Zealand, both of which are also giving increased priority to their defence contacts with the South Pacific region.

In the future, as in the past, our international security will be inextricably bound up with that of our island neighbours, if only because we share the same geographical neighbourhood. More importantly, we also share with the peoples and governments of the island countries, a common commitment to democratic ideals and principles, and a desire for continuation of the regional peace and stability necessary for economic development and growing prosperity.

Since World War II, the island countries have been remote from regions of the world where major power rivalries or local disputes produced tensions and armed conflict. These fortunate circumstances, together with the fact that, until the 1970s, most of these countries remained under the administration and protection of Western powers friendly to Australia, meant that there was little justification for Australia to develop closer defence links with the island countries in this period.

Over recent years, however, there have been far-reaching changes in the region. With the exception of the French Territories and American Samoa, all of the island countries have moved from their former dependant colonial status to full independence or to self-government in free association with the former administering state. There are now eight independent island states ranging in size from Fiji, with a population of over 600,000 to Tuvalu which has only about 8,000 inhabitants.

During this period too, the island states have begun to develop their own national and, in many areas, regional approaches in dealing with the outside world. Conversely, the South Pacific region has begun to attract increasing international attention. These processes are inevitable and reflect the growing international self-confidence and self-reliance of the island states.

We recognise that these changes have made our regional strategic environment more complex. They carry the potential risk that disputes between the major powers, and influences which could be harmful to our longer term strategic interests, may be introduced to the region.

In these circumstances, the Australian Government seeks to encourage the island countries to develop common views, attitudes and approaches to international issues, including strategic and defence issues. We do this, not as a major power seeking to impose its views on smaller, less powerful nations, but rather as a friend, counsellor and equal partner to our regional neighbours. We aim to achieve a common regional approach to these issues through dialogue, discussion and subsequent consensus, in what the islanders themselves call the ``Pacific Way''.

This approach to developing defence relations among the South Pacific community of nations is already well established and has proved its effectiveness in practice. Through it we aim to maintain our position as a natural partner to the island countries in defence matters. This requires an active Australian defence role in the region. We intend to increase that activity, not only through regular consultations and discussions with island leaders about matters of mutual defence and strategic interest, but also through practical working co-operative activities in which Australian defence units and personnel combine with island government agencies to achieve mutually desired goals.

In increasing our defence activity in the South Pacific, we are mindful of the fact that the small size of the island countries' defence and security forces imposes a practical constraint. Moreover, the island governments believe, quite correctly in my view, that in their current and foreseeable economic and strategic circumstances, economic development is their main national concern.

The island countries' pre-occupation with economic security and greater self-reliance highlights the continuing importance of Australia's contribution to regional social and economic stability through the various means of international co-operation that are available. Obviously, our civil aid programs and trade and commercial policies will play the main role, but our defence activities can make an important contribution to the overall Australian effort.

One area that presents opportunities for such an Australian defence contribution is the upgrading of the island countries' abilities to manage and protect their maritime resources and to safeguard their national sovereignty. Australian defence support in this area accords with the priorities of the island countries themselves. It also serves Australian defence interests by making a direct contribution to our knowledge of maritime activities in our region of primary strategic interest. From a practical point of view it is also a field of activity where the Australian Defence Force possesses appropriate resources and expertise that are not readily available from outside the defence community.

Accordingly, the Government has agreed that I should take steps to enhance and extend the defence relations that Australia has with Pacific island countries, concentrating on initiatives in the maritime area.

Much of the groundwork has already been laid. Shortly after this Government assumed office, the Prime Minister announced to the South Pacific Forum meeting, in Canberra in August 1983, the Government's offer to assist the island countries in developing a Pacific Patrol Boat, specifically designed to meet their needs for surveillance of their 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones. Subsequently a contract was concluded with a West Australian firm, Australian Shipbuilding Industries. The project is now well advanced:

the first of the 12 boats on order is now undergoing sea trials off Fremantle;

it will be handed over to a trained Papua New Guinea Defence Force crew in the next few months;

in addition to Papua New Guinea, which is taking 4 Boats, other countries participating in the project are Fiji (which is also taking 4 boats), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Western Samoa and the Cook Islands;

RAN technical advisers who will assist in bringing the vessels into service have already taken up duty in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji; another will shortly be posted to Western Samoa.

I would emphasise that at an estimated total cost of $61.7m the Pacific Patrol Boat project is far larger than any previous Australian Defence Cooperation project, in the South Pacific, or in South East Asia.

Many of the other defence initiatives the Government has now decided on in the South Pacific will complement the Pacific Patrol Boat project by assisting the development of island country maritime surveillance systems or by supporting their operations with Australian defence resources and expertise. I will briefly detail the more important of these initiatives.

We are increasing the number of RAAF Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft deployments to the South Pacific from 5 to 10 per year. These deployments generally extend over five days, during which time surveillance of several countries' maritime areas can be accomplished.

Using the data available from the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency in Honiara, we shall aim to concentrate the increased level of operations at the times of the year and in the areas where intrusions by foreign fishing and other vessels are known to be most probable. Maritime surveillance authorities in the island countries will be consulted when we are planning these deployments and we shall pass reports to them. We shall maintain close liaison with the New Zealand Defence authorities to ensure that our efforts and their similar deployments are complementary.

I have also asked my Department and the Defence Force to investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of operating RAAF Long range Maritime Patrol aircraft from suitable airfields in the island countries for short periods, if this should be desired by the governments concerned.

Turning to naval activities, we shall endeavour to ensure when planning the RAN Fleet Program that RAN ships make regular visits to the independent countries of the region. This year, some 17 RAN ships will be deployed to the region and will visit ports in 12 island countries. I would add that these RAN deployments are not simply flag-showing exercises. Our vessels will engage in cooperative activities with the maritime authorities of the island countries, including passing on any surveillance observations made in local waters.

The smaller, more remote ports will not be overlooked. Extended deployments by the RAN FREMANTLE Class patrol boats will be given priority. These vessels and their crews will become familiar with all of our significant island neighbours. They will participate in combined fisheries surveillance exercises with the Pacific Patrol Boats to help maintain the skills and expertise of their island crews.

Another area of Australian Defence Force expertise relevant to South Pacific requirements is hydrographic survey and charting.

As part of our Defence Cooperation arrangements with Fiji we are assisting the Royal Fiji Military Forces Naval Squadron to acquire a hydrographic survey vessel, replacing one which had to be taken out of service. Fiji has agreed that, with our assistance to meet the additional costs involved, this vessel will be used to undertake survey work in the waters of other South Pacific countries when requested. In the longer term, this will contribute to a steady improvement in charts of South Pacific waters, a reduction in hazards to navigation and consequent benefits to inter-island commerce and economic development.

We also plan to continue to assist the development of the island countries' national maritime surveillance systems. This assistance, which will comprise technical advice, training and provision of specialised equipment, will complement the Pacific Patrol Boat project and help ensure that island countries gain maximum benefits from the boats' operations.

Looking to the longer term, we shall encourage and endeavour to facilitate, cooperation and coordination of maritime surveillance on a region-wide basis. Subject to the agreement of Forum countries, this could involve assistance to the Forum Fisheries Agency in Honiara to enable it to better fulfil the coordinating role assigned to it by the South Pacific Forum. In cooperation with the Australian civil aid authorities, my Department and the Defence Force will work closely with the Agency, including through provision of advice, equipment, and training in maritime surveillance management techniques.

Other initiatives my Department will pursue in this area include sponsoring a seminar for South Pacific Forum country representatives to discuss maritime surveillance systems and procedures; and the establishment of a maritime surveillance course for regional countries at the Australian Maritime College.

Over the past 10 years Australian Army survey personnel have played a key role in surveying base lines for South Pacific countries' Exclusive Economic Zones. This survey work is an essential prerequisite to permit the island countries to define, protect and to gain maximum benefits from their maritime resources. We plan to offer further assistance to the island countries in survey operations and the preparation of maps and charts.

Australian Army engineers are also making valuable contributions to our co-operative activities with South Pacific countries. Each year we deploy an Engineer Construction Troop to a South Pacific country for 2 to 3 months to undertake a construction project in co-operation with the local authorities. In 1986, the deployment was to Western Samoa to construct some of the shore facilities required for the Pacific Patrol Boat. This year, we are examining the possibility of a similar project with the Vanuatu authorities.

In conclusion, I would stress once again that all of the activities about which I have spoken are undertaken in the closest possible co-operation with the island governments concerned. In many instances their complementary efforts make essential contributions without which our common aims would not be achieved. Together we can ensure that the South Pacific remains an area characterised by peace and stability in which the island people can continue to pursue economic progress and prosperity.


Senator GARETH EVANS —Pursuant to the arrangement agreed to with the Opposition whereby this matter will be allowed time for debate early next week, I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

Debate (on motion by Senator Durack) adjourned.