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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 519


Senator HILL(5.01) —The Senate is debating the statement of the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) on Australia's defence initiatives in the South Pacific. In foreign policy and related Defence Force activities a principal responsibility of Australia, in our interests and in the interests of the Western Alliance, must be the goal of continuing peace and security in the South Pacific. The statements of the Government which acknowledge the fact and which look to some practical ways in which we can contribute to that goal are obviously welcome, but particularly welcome after the Fortress Australia report of Paul Dibb which was so warmly received by the Government only some months ago. It seems that now at least, in some modest ways, the Government has responded to the wide expressions of public concern that Australia is not going to contribute to a safer world by withdrawing behind the barriers of perceived isolation.

The South Pacific area is rapidly changing. With few exceptions the island states have become independent. The exceptions that come to mind are: American Samoa, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Of course I am leaving aside the North Marianas, Guam, the Palau Islands and other states which I would really describe as being in the North Pacific. They are not economically strong. In fact many of the small Pacific states are impoverished, wrestling with all the problems that arise therefrom. They are still developing foreign policies. They are forging new links other than their traditional colonial ties, so we see new blocs developing, one of which was mentioned by the previous speaker, Senator MacGibbon-the Melanesian bloc of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. We see such groups growing in strength and relevance and in fact determining group positions for important meetings such as the South Pacific Forum. This becomes important in all sorts of ways, not least in the case of the Melanesian bloc, because of its support for the Melanesians in New Caledonia. This in turn enables the group to place pressure on Australia. It is particularly so with Papua New Guinea in that group, its being a major recipient of Australian aid and being in our largest defence co-operation program, as we are reminded in this particular report and, of course, because of the special relationship that comes from former colonial ties. Because of it Australia can find itself locked into positions that might not always be in its best interests.

Let us take, for example, the New Caledonian position. The South Pacific Forum voted for reinscription of New Caledonia on the list of colonial states yet to become independent. Australia at previous meetings had opposed reinscription, but the Melanesian bloc in this instance came to the Forum with a fixed position. At the United Nations reinscription debate the Australian Government did not want to be seen as taking the lead. That was the responsibility of Fiji, as the Chairman of the Forum. Nevertheless, Australia, not Fiji, was condemned by France, because in the South Pacific lake, the lake of the Forum countries, we are the big power. We are seen as having a responsibility to take a lead and we have to pay the price of a leader. As a result our relationship with France, a major power-of course a nuclear weapons power-an important trading partner and a country still with enormous influence in the world, has been seriously damaged. If anyone doubts France's influence, they need reflect simply on the refusal of the United States of America to sign the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, because as far as I am concerned the principal reason for the refusal of the US was the enormous pressure that was placed upon it by France. It is simply not worth offending France to please small Pacific states and Australia. I am not saying that the position that was adopted on reinscription was wrong. In fact I think it was right. In the South Pacific we have a responsibility to see that minorities are treated fairly, and one way of doing that is to look to the United Nations' oversight of acts of self-determination.

But the Australian Government of course goes further and says that its policy is for independence for New Caledonia; also no doubt due to pressure from the Melanesian bloc. I do not think that is the correct policy. The correct policy, as far as I am concerned, is for New Caledonia to have a proper choice. Our responsibility, both directly and through the United Nations, is to see that the question of whether or not New Caledonians wish to be independent, is put to them in a fair way. So we get to questions of: Who comprises a satisfactory constituency; what is the form of the referendum; and how is France going to look to the interests of the minority Melanesian grouping that was referred to by the previous speaker? As far as I am concerned, that is the responsibility of Australia in that particular debate.

What I am saying is that at times we must lead the South Pacific and at times we must support it. But in meeting that responsibility we must beware of being locked in because of being concerned about being locked out. In other words, I do not think it is surprising that Australia, because not only of its perceived position in the South Pacific but also of its real position, becomes concerned about the prospect of being locked out of South Pacific wishes. We must remember that we have a very important responsibility in that lake and that requires at times a need to lead as well as to support.

The question of France is left out of this statement, as are the other difficult questions facing the South Pacific region, such as the Soviet intentions, the role of New Zealand in defence and ANZUS. I think Australia should be rebuilding its relationship with France. It will not be easy and it will not be easy particularly in the South Pacific, because France will continue its nuclear testing program. As the Senate would know, I am as opposed to that program as much as anyone else in this place. But the level of misunderstanding that now exists between Australia and France-both members of the Western alliance-is not in our best interests.

I was probably the last Australian parliamentarian who was permitted to visit French officials in Paris just before Christmas. What they said to me came as a shock and roughly it was: `We cannot understand why Australia is being so unfriendly towards France'. They went on to say: `Why cannot France be trusted to do the right thing in New Caledonia?'. I have to say that, after putting up with the vicious French propaganda distributed at the United Nations General Assembly against Australia for three of the last months of last year, and remembering the not too subtle exercises of diplomacy in a New Zealand harbour with the destruction of the Rainbow Warrior, the temptation when we hear such arguments put to us is simply to throw up our hands and walk out. I suggest to the Senate that in many ways that has been the approach of the Labor Government in this country. To throw up our hands and walk out notwithstanding such frustrations I suggest is not in Australia's best interests. Rather, it is important to keep in the debate and keep working on the relationship.

I mentioned the Soviet role in the South Pacific. The Soviet Union presently has a negligible presence in the South Pacific. For the time being that is likely to remain, for obvious reasons. The major reason is its low priority; the Soviet Union does not have major interests in the region. It is already overextended and it does not have the resources to waste. In other words, it is low priority stuff. If we were talking about Asia or the North Pacific-centres of super-power rivalry-I would be saying something very different. Cam Ranh Bay gives the Soviets an increased potential to project power into the South Pacific, but it is much more relevant to a debate on South East Asia.

What the Soviet Union is doing in the region was foreshadowed by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in his much quoted speech in Vladivostok last year. The Soviets wish to extend their influence in the region through aid, trade, commercial exchanges, scientific exchanges and diplomatic means-what we might refer to as traditional Western methods of extending influence. Of course, it is not surprising that they wish to extend their influence into the region; as a super-power that is what we would anticipate they would do. Greater influence in the region benefits the Soviets in all sorts of ways, not least at the United Nations and other international forums.

There is no doubt that the Soviet Union is anxious to legitimise its status in the world as a super-power other than simply through projections of power; besides, it is cheaper. We in Australia may see the dangers of economically vulnerable Pacific states getting into bed with the Soviets, but I remind the Senate that it is hard to lecture these specific states when we are already in that bed. In fact we are becoming quite dependent on Soviet trade, as honourable senators will be aware, particularly in relation to wheat. So more Pacific states will enter into trade agreements with the Soviets, as Kiribati did, which lasted for a while, and as Vanuatu has now done. Of course, negotiations are currently taking place with Fiji, and are likely to take place with Papua New Guinea.

As the Soviet economic and other interests in the region grow, a projection of military power will follow. It inevitably follows. That is the way with super-powers. It is regrettable but inevitable. It is therefore obviously in our interests to close the windows of opportunity that are presented to the Soviets by the economic impoverishment of small Pacific states. I must say that in those circumstances I was astounded by the Australian Government's decision to cut aid to the Pacific, which was simply playing into the Soviets' hands. I am pleased to say that that aid has now been reinstated, at least in relation to the small Pacific states, although not to Papua New Guinea. But by such policy mess-ups, prestige and influence is lost. It is simply a bad application of foreign policy. But money is not the only way to keep the Pacific peaceful. The Japanese answer to increased super-power rivalry in the region is to plan huge aid programs. I suggest that that will buy only short term influence but it will change the face of the Pacific forever. Yes, we should be advocating Pacific support; but economic domination, no.

I want to say something about the American role, which also is not mentioned in the Government's statement. The American record has not always been good in the region. The record of the American Tuna Boat Association, which was of course supported by American law, lost the United States both respect and influence. American attitudes to the law of the sea are also at odds with those of Pacific states. However, I suggest that in more recent times credit is due. A new tuna boat treaty has been concluded, which is pleasing. There has been some modest increase in aid. Similarly, there has been a modest increase in United States diplomatic representation in the region. In other words, the United States response to the growing Soviet influence in the South Pacific has been much more gentle and more subtle than perhaps we would have expected. I suggest that that is good because it gives the Pacific states the chance to grow and develop without necessarily losing all the benefits of the Pacific way. But it does mean that, if the United States is prepared to leave much of the responsibility in the region to Australia-which I submit is good-Australia must adequately meet that responsibility. I suggest that what we have had to date, particularly in relation to the aid debacle, has been a failure of that responsibility on the part of this Australian Government.

Lastly, I cannot leave a discussion of defence in the South Pacific without mentioning New Zealand. The policies of the New Zealand Government, such as its ban on United States ship visits, undermine the strength of the Western alliance. A loss of resolve, as demonstrated by such policies, serves only to encourage an increase of Soviet influence in the region. Chinks in the armour are exploited. In other words, over time it encourages only expressions of super-power rivalry in the South Pacific, which we have been able to avoid in the past. Australia could have done, and still could be doing, much more to convince New Zealand of the benefits of the Western Alliance. For reasons of security in the region, I hope that New Zealand does return to a full alliance position. I might say that I have urged the United States Government to keep the door open and, despite its feelings of frustration and disappointment at New Zealand policy, not to drive the wedge in further.

This Government statement restates a few existing defence programs and announces modest extensions of several other programs which are welcomed. However, it is disappointing in avoiding all the major defence issues in the region. It is superficial and contributes little to debate. Hopefully, that might come with the Government's White Paper, although, on the basis of precedent, there is reason for doubt. All in all, this statement adds up to a pretty poor effort.