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The security-development nexus and Australia's engagement with Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea: a paper presented to Fulbright Symposium: Civil-military cooperation and the war on terror, Brisbane, 2004

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The Security-Development Nexus and Australia’s Engagement with Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea

‘The New Interventionism’ 2003 marked a significant change in Australia’s relations with the island Pacific, including Papua New Guinea. Since gaining independence in the 1970s, the island states of the Southwest Pacific have been left to control their own political and economic affairs. While providing substantial amounts of bilateral aid, Australia has been sensitive to charges of neo-colonialism and interference with national sovereignty. All this appears to have changed, however, with Canberra’s adoption of what Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has characterized as a “more robust policy of cooperative intervention”. The primary objective is to restore and strengthen security and stability in troubled Pacific states.

The two principal manifestations of this new policy have been the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in mid-2003 and the proposed Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP)

to Papua New Guinea. Australia

has also agreed to provide Police Commissioners to both Fiji and Nauru. Nauru, which is effectively bankrupt, is the subject of intensified engagement. Another aspect of the new approach has been a renewed focus on strengthening the institutions of regional governance. In August 2003, Canberra secured the appointment of a former Australian diplomat as the new secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat with a mandate to reform and invigorate this body. This reversed a longstanding convention that only Pacific islanders were eligible for appointment. John Howard has made clear that future Australian aid to the Pacific will be linked to efforts by recipient governments to improve standards of governance and combat corruption. The new hands-on approach has inevitably ruffled some feathers, not least among an older generation of independence leaders who resent Canberra’s stridency and the perceived threat this represents to national sovereignty.

However, among other observers, including many ordinary Pacific islanders, Canberra’s re-engagement is something to be welcomed. It provides a rare opportunity to assist regional governments address the diverse and growing challenges they have faced in recent years. Indeed, if Australia’s new commitment is sustained, it provides the most important opportunity for broad-ranging reform since the era of decolonisation in the 1970s.Mr Downer has recently spoken of the ECP as a “turbo-charged boost for change” in PNG. Of course, much depends on what changes are being proposed and whose interests are being promoted. While Canberra has its own national interest and security agenda to pursue, achieving effective and sustainable reform in the island Pacific requires active participation and ownership on the part of the governments and citizenry of the countries concerned.

New Approach to Development Assistance Australia’s new interventionism also signifies a different approach to the delivery of development assistance: • Move away from a “softly softly” approach involving capacity building projects targeted at

particular institutions to a more robust approach involving comprehensive packages of measures cutting across different sectors of government; • An emphasis, though not an exclusive one, on strengthening law and justice and internal security systems (police, courts, oversight agencies, prisons, customs, border controls etc) -

the securitisation of aid; • Adoption of a ‘whole of government’ approach. There are now more bits of the Australian government involved in development assistance than at any time since independence. This approach presents its own challenges of coordination and has resulted in a considerable level

of uncertainty among the traditional institutional providers of development assistance, notably AusAID; • Deployment of growing numbers of seconded and contracted Australian personnel in line positions in key government agencies; • Long-term commitment (10 years for RAMSI? 5 years for ECP?); • The sheer ambition of these engagements.

Greg Sheridan on the eve of RAMSI’s deployment: “This is a huge undertaking by Australia, a historic turning point in the way we relate to our neighbours, especially in the crisis-stricken Melanesian world of the islands in the inner arc around Australia. We are seeking nothing less than to remake a nation” (Australian 1 July 2003)

What lies behind the changes in Australian policy?

Concerns about Aid Effectiveness The growing critique of Australian development assistance to the region has had a major impact in Canberra. This critique involves an unlikely convergence between critics on both the left and right of the political spectrum. On the left, critics from within recipient countries and Australia have derided the aid program as ‘boomerang aid’, whereby the principal beneficiaries are the Australian companies and consultants who manage and implement AusAID projects. On the right, there is the work of conservative economists such as Helen Hughes and Peter Bauer1, both working for the Sydney-based think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies. Hughes’s 2003 report, Why Aid has Failed the Pacific, received widespread publicity and struck a sympathetic chord in senior government circles. In it, she argues that Australian aid has failed to deliver on its promises and, moreover, that it is implicated in the dynamics of political and economic dysfunction in the region by fuelling corruption and engendering dependency among recipient states. The reality of aid and its impacts is, of course, significantly more complex and diverse than these critiques imply. There have been successes as well as failures. Likewise the potential link between aid and government corruption has diminished with the move from budgetary support to tied aid. The case for simply ending aid is unlikely to find much support even among the most ardent critics in the recipient countries. At the same time, few would deny that the Australian aid program can be, and needs to be, improved in terms of its practical outcomes.

1 Peter Bauer ‘Foreign aid: mends it or end it?’, in Bauer, Siwatibau and Kasper (1991), Aid and Development in the South Pacific. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies.

The Changing Strategic Environment The single most important factor has been the dramatically changed international strategic environment since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the Bali bombings. Having aligned itself closely with the Bush administration in Washington, Canberra has adopted the ‘war on terror’ as the principal lens for viewing issues of conflict and instability in the region. Within this expanded concept of security, the notion of ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ states has become pivotal to the identification of perceived threats to Australian security interests and the mobilisation of preventive and remedial responses.

The case for intervention in the Solomon Islands was set within this broader strategic framework and was articulated most clearly in the influential report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in June 20032. As well as warning of the catastrophic consequences of the collapse of SI’s ‘failing state’, the ASPI report provided a regional perspective, noting that while the Solomon Islands state is closest to "total collapse", some of its Melanesian neighbours are not that far behind. For many in Canberra and beyond, the most likely next cab off the rank is Papua New Guinea, Australia’s largest and most challenging Pacific neighbour. There have been longstanding concerns about rising levels of financial mismanagement, corruption, political instability, and law and order, in PNG. These concerns, in combination with the renewed focus on regional security and the success of the first phase of RAMSI, culminated in Canberra’s offer of a substantial package of enhanced assistance to the PNG government late last year, subsequently agreed to at the Ministerial Forum in Adelaide in December 2003.

Difficulties with concept of ‘failed states’ in Melanesian context While the concept of ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ state is now used regularly in the Pacific islands context, there have been few attempts to ground it in the particular histories and socio-political contexts of the region’s post-colonial states. It has become a convenient device for justifying various forms of external engagement rather than an instrument of analysis. The notion of a ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’ state assumes that at some point it was functioning properly, presumably in a manner similar to the ‘successful’ states of Australia and New Zealand. However, a cursory reading of the short history of states in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, or Vanuatu, serves to dispel this assumption. The Melanesian state has never operated effectively in the way it has in Australia and New Zealand. On the contrary, one can argue that the main problem of state in these Melanesian countries is that it has yet to be properly built. We are still talking about the nascent stages of state and nation building in countries with a short experience of centralised administration, among the highest levels of internal fragmentation and social diversity in the world, and, as yet, little sense of common identity.

The challenge of state building in Solomon Islands or PNG is not to simply rebuild that which has ostensibly ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’. Indeed, to do so might be to simply invite future ‘failure’. What is needed is a different approach to state building that addresses directly the complexities of trying to build a unitary state and sense of

2 Our Failing Neighbour: Australia and the Future of Solomon Islands. Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2003.

‘nation’ in such topographically challenging and socially diverse environments as those found in SI and PNG. This cannot be achieved quickly or simply engineered through a massive infusion of external resources and expertise. Nor can it be accomplished by focusing exclusively on state structures. It is the dysfunctional character of state-society relations that needs to be addressed if sustainable improvement is to be achieved.

The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI)

RAMSI was deployed in July 2003 in response to an appeal from the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza. What began as an ethnic conflict had degenerated, since the Townsville Peace Agreement in October 2000, into the effective capture and paralysis the SI state by a small cohort of armed ex-militants, including renegade police officers and corrupt leaders. Australia’s response was to mobilize a regional assistance mission led by a police contingent of some 330 officers, mainly from Australia but with participation from other Forum member states. The Participating Police Force (PPF) was initially supplemented by around 1,800 military personnel from the region, again mainly Australian. The military force has been gradually reduced as the security situation has improved. Restoring law and order was the immediate priority to be followed by a comprehensive reform program aimed at stabilizing government finances, balancing the budget, and reviving investor confidence, as well as strengthening the law and justice sector and rebuilding the SI police force. It has been estimated that the more ambitious aims of the mission will take up to 10 years to achieve.

As mentioned earlier, the initial phase of RAMSI has gone remarkably well. A large number of the illegally held high-powered weapons have been surrendered or confiscated. The most notorious former militants are now behind bars and peace has returned to Honiara and other areas affected by the recent conflict. RAMSI’s efforts to cleanse the SI police of criminal and corrupt elements have resulted in the resignation or dismissal of over 25 percent of serving officers. With the restoration of law and order, the mission has now entered its second and more challenging phase involving the implementation of comprehensive governance and economic reform.

While popular support for RAMSI remains high, there are some issues that need to be addressed if the mission’s longer-term objectives are to be achieved. RAMSI’s leadership is well aware of most of these issues and is seeking to address them.

Corruption The first relates to a concern expressed by some Solomon Islanders that RAMSI has been more zealous in prosecuting criminal activities by former militants than cases of high level corruption involving powerful public figures. This, in turn, has raised a further concern in some quarters that RAMSI inadvertently provides a cloak of legitimacy for corrupt leaders, and a government, that have limited legitimacy in the eyes of many Solomon Islanders. For its part, RAMSI officials have expressed frustrations at the lack of reliable evidence on which to base prosecutions in these cases and have regularly called for members of the public to provide relevant evidence.

Participation, Ownership & Dependency Another concern relates to the continuing dominance of RAMSI in post-conflict Solomon Islands and the limited ownership or control exercised by Solomon Islanders. Perhaps not surprising given the circumstances of the crisis. The sheer scale of RAMSI in terms of the resources at its disposal and the range of activities it is involved in underlie its popular image as the dominant force in post-conflict Solomon Islands. Without the active participation and engagement of Solomon Islanders, there is a risk that RAMSI will simply reinforce dependence on external assistance. Solomon Islands’ academic, Tarcisiius Kabutaulaka, points out that RAMSI’s dominance could lead to ether a debilitating dependency or, alternatively, a perception of foreign occupation (Kabutaulaka 2004).3 He notes the popular saying “weitem olketa RAMSI bae kam stretim” (“wait for RAMSI, they’ll fix it”), as an expression of this growing dependency. There is a thin line between RAMSI’s dominant position and perceptions that it is actually the ‘real’ government in control of political and economic decision-making. Such perceptions cannot, of course, be resolved by RAMSI alone. There is a clear need for decisive leadership among Solomon Islanders and a much more active participation in the reform process.

State-centrism RAMSI’s post-conflict recovery work has understandably focused on key state institutions, such as the police and finance ministries. In the longer-term, it is also important to engage with non-state entities that continue to exercise considerable influence over the lives of ordinary Solomon Islanders. These include the churches, NGOs and other agencies of civil society. Building social and economic capacity at local levels is a critical aspect of the longer-term task of nation building in Solomon Islands. As Kabutaulaka puts it, “To achieve sustainable peace and rebuild Solomon Islands there is a need to strengthen both state and non-state entities. This is especially important in a plural society where the state will always share power with other organizations” (2004:2). The work of the Australian-supported Solomon Islands Community Peace and Restoration Fund is a good example of how this engagement with communities can be nurtured.

Centralised state vs Federal System There is also the question of what kind of state system is most appropriate to Solomon Islands’ present and future needs. The highly centralized model inherited at independence is implicated in many aspects of recent problems. While there are serious flaws in current proposals to adopt a federal system, reform of the existing framework of government, in particular, relations between the political centre and the island provinces, needs to be prioritised. It is also important to ensure adequate levels of consultation and debate about the economic and public sector reforms being implemented under the auspices of RAMSI. Reforms that accentuate existing divisions between regions and individuals and that fail to improve access to services and economic opportunities among the bulk of the rural population will lead to growing levels of discontent and could result in future conflict.

Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP) in Papua New Guinea

3 Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, “’Failed State’ and the War on Terror: Intervention in Solomon Islands”. Honolulu: East West Centre, Asia Pacific Issues series, No. 72, March 2004, 1-8.

The Enhanced Cooperation Program in Papua New Guinea includes additional Australian assistance to policing, law and justice, border management, as well as economic and public sector management. Up to 230 Australian police officers will be deployed in Port Moresby, Lae, Mount Hagen, and along the Highlands Highway, as well as up to 20 officers in Bougainville. 400 new PNG police will also be recruited under the program. The policing component has been costed at $800 million over a five year period and is additional to the existing $350 million a year Australian aid program to PNG (Total aid of $2.4 billion over 5 years). While many of the civilian officials are already at work, the deployment of Australian police has been delayed owing to disagreement between Canberra and Port Moresby over their conditions of employment. This has centred on Canberra’s insistence that they be provided with immunity from prosecution under PNG law and Port Moresby’s refusal to grant blanket immunity. Power plays in the PNG parliament around a possible vote of no confidence against the government have resulted in further delays. The impasse over immunity now appears to have been resolved and, subject to the ratification of the new treaty by both Australian and PNG parliaments, Australian police should be in position within a few months.

Differences between PNG & SI situation Some members of PNGs political elite have expressed reservations about Canberra’s new approach and, in particular, about parallels drawn between Papua New Guinea and the ‘failing state’ in Solomon Islands. Although there are similarities, there are also important differences between the two countries. There has been no armed takeover in Port Moresby and the forcible ousting of a democratically elected government. While the state and the RPNGC may be weak, they have certainly not collapsed. Likewise, PNG’s well-known law and order problems are not the result of a major internal conflict. PNG has long been the largest single recipient of Australian development assistance and a significant amount of this has been directed at the law and justice sector and, in particular, the police. Although there have been some improvements, the otherwise disappointing results of almost 15 years of Australian aid to the PNG police has been another important contributor to the formulation of the ECP.

There is no denying that PNG faces major challenges of financial management, economic development, governance, corruption, political stability, and law and order. While some have taken exception to Canberra’s new stridency, a younger generation of political leaders and many ordinary Papua New Guineans see the offer of additional assistance in more positive terms, as a chance to make a real start in addressing long neglected problems. In many respects, the recent friction between Canberra and Port Moresby has been more about style than substance. There is broad agreement on both sides that the Australian aid program can be made more effective. The ECP is no panacea but it does offer much-needed assistance in areas requiring urgent attention.

Internal Security rather than External Threats/Addressing Underlying Issues As with RAMSI in Solomon Islands, there are a number of broad issues that can be raised in respect of the ECP. Much of the marketing of the ECP to the domestic Australian audience has focused on the perceived threats to Australian security presented by its lawless northern neighbour. This has included an emphasis on PNG’s alleged susceptibility to transnational crime and terrorism. While this may be

an effective way of selling the program in Australia, it is less convincing in the PNG context. Threats of international crime and terrorism in PNG are dwarfed by more pressing internal security matters. PNG’s ‘law and order’ problems are complex and diverse. They are not simply a reflection of the weakness of the law and justice system. While that system, particularly policing, needs to be strengthened, there is also a need to address some of the underlying issues that are contributing to high levels of internal conflict and lawlessness. This would include the larger processes of urbanization, empoverishment (particularly in rural areas), and marginalization of a significant proportion of PNG’s young and rapidly growing population. In short, many of the so-called law and order problems are simply not susceptible to law and order solutions alone.

Need to emphasise Prevention as well as Control; Legal Pluralism in PNG; non-state justice systems (e.g. Village Courts) Papua New Guinea has already embarked on an ambitious program to reform its law and justice system and it is important that the additional support provided under the ECP be integrated into this existing reform program. The law and justice component of the ECP is highly state-centric with its focus on strengthening the principal agencies of the formal justice system. PNG’s new law and justice policy also emphasises the need to mobilise and strengthen community-based resources in order to strengthen dispute resolution and peacemaking at community levels. The community-orientation of this policy recognises that there are many examples of

successful dispute resolution and peacemaking occurring in communities throughout PNG and that these provide an important foundation for building a more socially appropriate and sustainable justice system. The remarkable example of grassroots reconciliation and peacebuilding in post-conflict Bougainville provides the most dramatic example of this largely invisible and untapped resource. It is important that the assistance provided under the ECP does not detract from the longer-term goal of building justice capacity at both state and community levels.


Australia’s renewed engagement with its troubled Melanesian neighbours is to be welcomed. It provides a unique window of opportunity for addressing some of the most outstanding challenges facing the governments and peoples of the region. Having embarked on this path, it is important that Canberra enters into genuine partnerships with recipient governments and the broader communities in the countries concerned. Achieving adequate levels of local ownership and participation is critical to the effectiveness and sustainability of these initiatives.

The ‘whole of government’ approach involved in these engagements also presents new challenges. There are now more bits of the Australian government involved in development assistance than at any time since independence. Issues of coordination are clearly critical, not least to avoid reproducing Canberra’s bureaucratic rivalries

in Honiara or Port Moresby. It is also clear that the Prime Minister’s Office has adopted a lead role in the formulation and steering of Australia’s new interventionism. This will have inevitably contributed to some tension and resentment, particularly among the traditional institutional providers of development assistance, notably AusAID and DFAT. It also means that key decisions are being made increasingly by those lacking extensive regional and development experience.

A further generic concern relates to the state-centric character of the assistance being offered under the auspices of these engagements. The weakness of state in Melanesia reflects, in part, the glaring disconnect between the realms of formal and non-formal governance. The latter continues to have considerable impact at all levels of modern society. ‘Top-down’ solutions do not have an impressive track record in the region. Indeed, some would argue that the traditional focus on state institutions has actually contributed to recent problems of instability and disorder. While addressing the deficiencies of particular state institutions is necessary, it is also important to engage with structures and processes at local and community levels.

A final point relates to the sustainability of these new engagements. With the deployment of increasing number of Australian personnel, the obvious question is what happens when they leave? Ensuring the long-term sustainability of these programs remains a major issue.