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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 449


Senator DURACK(5.45) —The Opposition welcomes and supports the new defence initiatives in the South Pacific which were outlined in a statement by the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) which has been tabled in this place. However, these defence initiatives, although small steps in what is no doubt the right direction, have to be evaluated in the context of the whole of the Government's relations with the South Pacific. I propose to address my remarks to this problem. One of the initiatives that are referred to, namely, the Pacific patrol boat program, has been a policy for some time. The first of those patrol boats, which are being made available to South Pacific countries which are interested in them, is already undergoing trials. So, that program has been in existence for some time. Other announcements, such as the increased deployment by the Royal Australian Air Force of long range maritime patrol aircraft in the region and the increased deployment of Royal Navy ships in the region are new matters. There is to be an upgrading of defence co-operation in technical matters. The statement, although welcome, is not really adequate to address the problems in the region.

One of the most striking things about the statement is that it makes no explicit mention at all of the growing position and role of the Soviet Union in the region. We are all well aware of the fishing agreements which the Soviet Union has succeeded recently in negotiating with Vanuatu and the agreement which it is renegotiating with Kiribati after its expiry. The Soviet Union's presence in this region represents a very considered, deliberate and new policy of the Soviet Union to take a much higher profile in the region that it has hitherto taken. Australia's defence links with this region are of vital importance to us, as is our trade across the South Pacific to the Americas and particularly North America. This is to say nothing of our direct trading relations which for many years have existed with countries of the region. So we must be concerned. I am sure that the Government, although perhaps not sufficiently concerned, has an understanding of the problem.

There has been nothing haphazard about the Soviet Union's approach to the region. I quote a statement by the General-Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mr Gorbachev, given in a speech at Vladivostok in July last year:

The Soviet Union's policy towards Asia and the Pacific region is an integral part of the general platform of the CPSU's international activity worked out by the April plenary meeting at the 27th Congress. But a platform is not a chart that can be applied to any situation. Rather, it is a set of principles and a method based on experience.

So, the growing penetration of the South Pacific by the Soviet Union in recent years is a quite deliberate policy by the Soviet Union. As I have said, it has runs on the board already. Mounting economic problems in the Pacific make the small states particularly vulnerable to approaches from a country such as the Soviet Union which has many bribes to offer.

The smaller states are very dependent on overseas aid. Australia has been a major contributor to aid to the region. Those countries are almost a bottomless pit of demand for aid. They have to balance budgets, pay for imports and reach minimum standards of health, housing and water reticulation. As we have seen recently, they are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Fortunately, Australia has been able to be in the forefront of assistance given recently both to Vanuatu and to the Cook Islands, which have suffered severely from cyclones. The Soviet Union is seeking to exploit this situation to gain a foothold in the region, which it has already done. The Soviet Ambassador to Australia, speaking of the Vanuatu fishing agreement in January-only a short time ago-said:

We plan to send about eight fishing boats there and we are paying rather good money for the licence.

That is a very good indication of what the real intentions of the Soviet Union are. It is paying `good money', which of course that country badly needs. The agreement between the Soviet Union and Vanuatu allows Soviet fishing vessels access to designated ports. This is the first time that the Soviet Union has had port access in the Pacific, which is very important politically. No doubt the Soviets will seek to extend their activities beyond the commercial in a small state such as Vanuatu, which has already been forging some links with Cuba, as we know from the recent visit to that country by the General-Secretary of the Vanuatu Party.

Apart from the direct penetration into the South Pacific, there is the Soviet military buildup in the base at Cam Ranh Bay. The Soviet Pacific fleet now represents 35 per cent of the Soviet Union's total naval assets. Its Pacific fleet is the largest of its four fleets. We know, based on recent reports on the size of the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay, that the developments that have occurred there have placed the Soviet Union in a very strong position to strike not only at the South Pacific region but also at Australia itself. Of course, that was denied by the Soviet Union until it was fully established by the published satellite photographs that we saw recently showing the strength and deployment of those ships and aircraft available to the Soviet Union there.

It is in this situation of threat that we see the Government's attitude, as expressed in the Minister's statement, towards maintaining peace and stability in the region. Certainly, there has been peace and stability in the past, but it is that very peace and stability which is now threatened and about which the Hawke Government seems to be remarkably complacent. Of course, the immediate problem of the ANZUS alliance as a result of New Zealand's refusal to admit United States warships because the United States will not confirm or deny that they are carrying nuclear weapons is of a most serious kind and is an example being given to South Pacific nations, because New Zealand's influence in that region has always been, and still is, very great. That destabilising position and the threat to the United States alliance have been caused not only by New Zealand's attitude but also by New Zealand's influence generally in the region.

In addition to the problem which I have outlined, there is the Hawke Government's determination to put in place in the region the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. We debated that Treaty in this chamber a little while ago. The Opposition strongly opposed it for two reasons. The first is the broader strategic perception which has been created by that region whereby Australia is seen to be aligned against our ally the United States because of the provisions in the Treaty which, although allowing the passage of nuclear armed and nuclear powered vessels through the region, prevent the stationing of ships or aircraft with such weapons anywhere in the region. That has been of great concern to the United States, which has now declined to sign the Treaty. The Soviet Union has signed the Treaty. Australia has been a leading proponent of it. The impression is now being created that we are sympathetic to the Soviet Union's stance in that region and are opposed to the United States. That is the worst possible perception that Australia could have put itself in as far as the defence of this region is concerned.

It is all very well for the Australian Government to announce new defence initiatives, ones which incidentally are somewhat contrary to the Government's report-the Dibb report on the Review of Australia's Defence capabilities-about attitudes to defence and projecting our defence presence beyond the fortress Australia. However, that is the subject of another debate. Although the Government is moving to recognise more sharply the defence needs of the region, we are in essence being seen in that region as opposed to the United States. That places us in great conflict with our major ally, the United States.

I noticed in this morning's Australian newspaper, I think it was, a report of an article by a distinguished United States naval officer, Admiral Thomas Hayward, who is a former Chief of United States Naval Operations and who was, at an earlier stage in his career, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Seventh Fleet in the Pacific. He expressed great concern about the influence of thinking which the Dibb report has revealed and with which the Government obviously has a great deal of sympathy. He believes that the developments portend a far more serious problem for the United States than New Zealand's policies or even Soviet gains in the South Pacific, and that the viability of the ANZUS alliance is at issue. He expresses his concern that the Minister for Defence has shown considerable support for the radical realignment of Australian policy away from the ANZUS alliance. That is a very alarming view which the Government has allowed to develop in the minds of distinguished United States naval persons such as Admiral Hayward. The Opposition can only continue to express and reaffirm its very grave concerns about developments in the South Pacific not only on defence matters but also because of our political ties in the region and our trade ties with it. The Government simply seems to be encouraging these developments. Its policies, such as the support and, indeed, the leadership it has more or less given to the establishment of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, will have long term serious consequences for Australia.

Although the Opposition believes that the Government's small new initiatives in the region are to be welcomed, they must be considered in the context of the Government's total policy towards the region, which is facing a very considerable threat from the Soviet Union and, as I have said, in its relations with other countries, such as Cuba. Even Colonel Gaddafi is showing interest in the region. Those are very serious threats of which the Government does not seem to be aware. It is all very well to encourage such policies and to maintain our aid programs, but if we get the major foreign policy settings and defence policy interests wrong, no matter how many steps of that kind we take, we will ultimately fail in achieving our true interests in this most important region.