The Role of Australian Imperialism in the Asia Pacific

The Activist — Volume 11, Number 3, February 2001

By Terry Townsend

[This general line of this report was adopted by the 19th DSP Congress held in Sydney, January 3-7, 2001.]

The resolution, "The role of Australian imperialism in the Asia Pacific Region Today", underlines key aspects of Australian imperialism that have shaped and continue to shape how the ruling class will react and respond to events in the region. This in turn shapes how revolutionaries must also react and respond in the coming period.

The most important aspects that the report seeks to identify are:

· First, that Australia is an imperialist power in its own right, with its own definite interests which it pursues with vigour and determination. Capitalist Australia is not a colony of US imperialism. Australia's rulers are not "puppets" or "running dogs" of the US imperialists but its junior partners.

In Asia, the Middle East and the rest of the world, the Australian ruling class largely falls in behind United States' foreign, economic and military policies — primarily because the interests of the Australian imperialist ruling class in general coincide with those of the US ruling class when it comes to crushing threats to its dominance.

· The second key aspect is that Australia has its own definite economic and military "sphere of influence", primarily in the Melanesian region of the South Pacific (Papua New Guinea(PNG), the Solomons Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji) and parts of South-East Asia (East Timor and parts of Indonesia).

· And a third is that, the Australian ruling class will increasingly place a greater emphasis on its responsibilities as the South-East Asia and South West Pacific regions' imperialist military and political enforcer, whose prime obligation is to maintain capitalist order and "stability" in the interests of Australia's ruling capitalist class and the dominant world powers, most centrally the United States.

At the October 14, 2000 National Committee meeting, the report on the proposal for the resolution on "The role of Australian imperialism in the Asia Pacific Region Today" explained:

"The rapid succession of events [in East Timor, Fiji and the Solomon Islands] ... refocused attention on the region — not only for the Australian ruling class but also for our party. The events in East Timor and those in Fiji sparked a lot of ill informed commentary and analysis by others on the left in other parts of the world — many were ignorant of the most basic facts of the political situation in this region.

"We realised that our party had a special responsibility to explain these events and the place of Australian imperialism in them because no-one else would do it properly ...

"While of course we had been doing that thoroughly in the pages of Green Left Weekly, we felt that something more was required to explain to the revolutionary forces in our region with which we are collaborating, the role of Australian imperialism and our attitudes toward it.

"It was also felt that a document [on the role and nature of Australian imperialism] would be enormously useful and educational resource for our members, especially our newest members.

"A hard-hitting and thorough analysis of Australian imperialism's origins, history and present situation would also provide a necessary antidote to the ever-present Australian nationalist virus that infects most of the Australian left and labour movement. It will provide a basis on which comrades can quickly analyse future developments in the region."

On December 6, 2000, the Australian government released its long-awaited Defence White Paper (DWP), Defence 2000 — Our Future Defence Force, to almost unanimous acclaim from ruling class commentators and the big business media's op-ed analysts. The document is a blueprint for the development the Australian military's structure and resources until 2010 and beyond. It unambiguously confirms the general line of the resolution that is before delegates at this conference.

"Our armed forces are not simply a service provided by government", states the White Paper's writers, " ... The Australian Defence Force [ADF] reflects the kind of country we are, the role we seek to play in the world, and the way we see ourselves."

That is a very correct statement: the DWP plainly reflects that Australia's role as a regional imperialist power that is in close political and military partnership with the world's largest economic and military power, the United States of America.

Keeping the Asia-Pacific region secure for Australian and US imperialism is the core goal outlined in the White Paper. Despite the obligatory declaration that the Australian military's prime objective is to "defend Australia from direct military attack", the White Paper sets out a hugely expensive program of weapons acquisitions, force restructuring and an increase in personnel numbers that is clearly aimed at enabling the Australian military to intervene more decisively in its near region on its own and in the wider South-East Asian area in tandem with US forces.

Under the terms of the DWP, the federal government will boost defence spending over the next decade by a massive $23.5 billion, beginning with a $500 million boost next financial year and an extra $1 billion in the following year. After that military spending will increase every year by an average 3per cent in real terms until 2010, when it will be almost $17 billion annually in today's dollars (that is not including the impact of inflation - it is likely to be well above $20 billion a year if an average 2per cent inflation rate over the decade is factored in), compared to the present level of $12.2 billion a year.

Between the financial years 2000-01 and 2009-2010 — on my admittedly very rough calculations — a total something like $162 billion in today's dollars will have been spent on the Australian military!

The scale of this can be gauged by figures supplied by the anti-militarist Blue Paper Project:

· $408 million would provide 3000 public housing homes;

· $350 million would pay for free medicine for every body in Australia;

· $280 million would double pre-school child care places;

· $170 million would fund 10 community hospitals with 100 beds and 300 staff each;

· $72 million would provide 8000 extra university places;

· $49 million would pay for 10,000 extra TAFE places;

· $10 million would fund 30 Aboriginal health centres; and;

· $5 million would fund 15 women's health centres.

There were no doubts among the ruling class's pundits about the implications of the White Paper.

For example, the Sydney Morning Herald's "defence correspondent" David Lague and senior political writer Michelle Grattan noted on December 6, 2000:

"The White Paper... combines a capacity to defend the continent with sufficient improved resources for Australia to undertake regional roles, such as peace-keeping in East Timor and the Solomons... Defence officials said defence thinking had gradually evolved over the past decade to consider the military having a bigger role than simply defending Australian territory, and this was clearly set out in the White Paper. 'The message is that the government will use military force where it feels that it has a legitimate and realistic way of securing its interests', one official said."

The SMH's December 7 editorial claimed that it "was the pace of recent changes in Australia's immediate region — the Asian economic crisis, the fall of Suharto, the Timor crisis and other upheavals stretching from Aceh to Fiji — that made this White Paper exercise essential."

The editorial then stated approvingly: "... The White Paper makes the point that more than in the recent past, Australia needs two sorts of effective military capability. The one that attracted most attention from governments until Timor was the need for the Air Force and Navy to have sophisticated and costly "platforms' and weapons systems to protect the nation's air and sea approaches and, occasionally, to contribute to "higher intensity' conflicts abroad as junior partners in coalition operations.

"The second need is for better-resourced, combat-ready land forces, and the ships and aircraft to transport and support them, so that they can contribute to regional security or peacekeeping in places such as East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, or other potential hot spots."

In that same edition of the SMH, David Lague wrote: "[The Prime Minister's] White Paper acknowledges what the overwhelming majority of military planners have always understood — Australia has regional and global interests that are far more likely to require the deployment of military forces than any attack on the Australian mainland.

"Australia has been involved in 11 wars and 36 peacekeeping operations since Federation, all of them overseas with the exception of the Japanese bombing of northern Australia in World War II.

"There is no sign that this is about to change when the pace of peacekeeping and security operations has been picking up since the end of the Cold War. This means that the ADF must be funded, trained and equipped for sustained operations offshore ... A military prepared to deploy to meet a threat or maintain peace and stability is also what our closest ally, the United States, demands."

Alan Dupont, director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Australian National University's Strategic and defence Studies Centre, wrote in the December 7, 2000 Australian that the DWP "will help restore the ADF's capability as well as clarify its role in the new century.

"The White Paper correctly observes that our defence interest, as distinct from our broader national interest, is most directly engaged in South-East Asia and the South-West Pacific. As Australia's strategic back yard, this is where our defence effort should be concentrated ...

"The White Paper's explicit recognition that the ADF must be better prepared to deal with the spill-over effects of intra-state conflicts in developing states, and to play a more active role in preventing and resolving conflict, is long overdue, given the instability that has permeated the region of late ... So is the decision to acquire versatile multiple-purpose equipment, more soldiers, and the ships and aircraft to move, protect and sustain them over extended periods."

The DWP represents the most concerted campaign since Vietnam to win Australian public support for an offensive/interventionist military policy. This concerted ideological campaign is necessary, not only because the Vietnam Syndrome — the reluctance of the Australian people to support participation in neocolonial wars abroad, especially if it involves the risk of Australian casualties — but also because the increased military expenditure is being demanded by the ruling class at the same time as the working class is being asked to sacrifice more, endure more austerity.

Prime Minister John Howard on December 6, 2000, threw his weight behind this ideological campaign, by emphasising the government's determination to maintain a military machine geared to regional intervention: "There's been instability in the Pacific and associated regions over the last year, we clearly need to have a defence capability that, while friendly and cooperative, equips us to do what we need to do ... I believe we have got the balance right between the defence of Australia role and the [peacekeeping] role."

The White Paper reflects the ruling class consensus — as was noted by the resolution — that supports Australia having a military force that is technologically capable, resourced enough and able to be integrated into US-led wars to protect the interests of imperialism — although the White Paper does make it clear that Australian forces will play a lesser role in conflicts outside Asia — as well as being able to put down insurgencies, revolts, revolutions and to threaten independent governments that dare to challenge Australian imperialism's exploitation in its self-proclaimed "sphere of influence".

It is this latter function that dominates the DWP. The government states that Australia must expect to be "the largest force contributor" for operations in PNG and the Pacific Island states.

In South-East Asia, the Defence White Paper states that Australia "would want to be able to make a substantial contribution to any regional coalition we decided to support" and does not rule out being the leading force in any such coalition.

In the "wider Asia Pacific region", the document states that Australia "would want to make a significant contribution to any coalition" but "in most cases" the US would lead such a coalition.

"Beyond the Asia Pacific region", the DWP adds, Australia "would normally consider only a relatively modest contribution to any wider UN or US-led coalition". Such a contribution would be restricted to air and naval forces rather than troops in the case of "higher intensity" operations, however Australian land forces "would be ideally suited to provide contributions to lower intensity operations including peace enforcement, peacekeeping" and humanitarian operations.

For the first time in two decades, Australian government policy is to increase the number of military personnel — from 51,000 to 54,000. Some $5 billion extra will be spent on the army over the next decade.

More importantly, Australian troops will be ready to mobilise for action in the region at much shorter notice and the structure of the military will be geared primarily for "lower intensity" conflicts in the near region. The regular army will no longer plan for continental-scale military operations.

The DWP provides for six battalions of about 1000 troops each to be always ready for action within 90 days, and most in less than 30 days. The 700-strong elite Special Air Service Regiment will also be on high readiness.

It is also envisaged that the Australian army will be geared "to sustain one major deployment and undertake a lesser deployment at the same time". Presently, the Australian military has troops stationed in East Timor, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and at the Butterworth base in Malaysia. The Australian ruling class expects more such missions due to increasing "regional instability".

The ADF Reserves will play a greater role in operations. In what will be the largest increase in the militarisation of Australian society since the abandonment of national service in 1972, legislation will have to be passed to allow reserves — which make up 42per cent of the ADF — to be called out for combat and other active duty.

In a related move (as well as being a thinly disguised added subsidy to private schools), an extra $30 million annually from 2002 will be pumped into the school cadet scheme. There are presently 25,000 cadets, overwhelmingly at expensive private schools.

24 helicopter gunships will be purchased to provide "high-precision firepower and reconnaissance to ground forces". An additional 12 troop-carrying helicopters, to be based in Darwin and Townsville, will be provided to rapidly deploy Australian troops to regional "trouble spots". New fixed-wing troop carriers will be introduced. The army's landing ships will also be upgraded and replaced. A new guerrilla-war training base will be established in Townsville.

Australian troops are to be equipped with state of the art night-vision goggles, shoulder-fired missiles, high-tech communications and computer equipment and body armour, and new battlefield air defence missile systems. 350 lightly armoured personnel carriers will be upgraded.

The 15 Fremantle class patrol boats will be replaced with a new class of vessel from 2004. These vessels will be ideal for use in the Pacific Islands (as was shown by the PNG defence force's use of its Australian-supplied patrols boats against the Bougainville rebels), as well as boosting the ability of the military to intercept refugees before they can land in Australia (keeping refugees out of the "Lucky Country" is a stated goal of Australian "defence" policy).

The Australian military's massive new shopping list includes items that will not only maintain its status as the South-East Asian region's most advanced military power but will significantly boost its offensive capabilities — both on its own or, more likely, in a "coalition" with the US forces.

The Australian government's existing $12.2 billion military defence budget is far above every one of its near-neighbours. Singapore is the closest at $7 billion. Australia's total military spending is roughly equal to all of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries combined.

The White Paper repackages Australia's aggressive Cold War-era "forward defence" military policy — the ability to attack any South-East Asian or Pacific Island country — as "pro-active defence".

Australia's 75 F/A-18 fighter jets — already among the most advanced warplanes in Asia and unrivalled by any South-East Asian air force — will be replaced by state of the art jet fighters by 2012. The Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) specialist "strike" fighter-bombers, its 25 F-111s will be replaced by a strike version of the same warplane that replaces the F/A-18s. This alone will come at the cost of $7 billion.

"Strike" is military boffin-speak for weapons that are designed to attack other countries. Up to five new air-to-air refuelling aircraft will be purchased that will, in practice, give all proposed 100 new warplanes the capability to bomb any major city or installation in South-East Asia and the South-West Pacific.

The Australian military's already dominant technological and firepower edge will be further enhanced by acquisitions designed to neutralise the regions' air defences. Four airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACs) and a possible three more are to be purchased.

Among the billions to be spent on 29 new naval vessels will be funds for three new high-tech "air-warfare" Navy destroyers designed to eliminate aircraft over the horizon. The six Collins-class submarines that are able to operate throughout Asia's waters will be upgraded to counter new-generation anti-submarine weapons. The Navy's six ANZAC frigates will be upgraded with anti-ship missiles. Two purpose-built support ships are to be introduced so that this "blue water" component of the Australian Navy can remain at sea for long periods.

All this, brags Defence Chief Admiral Chris Barrie, will give the Navy a "quantum jump in capability".

The massive enhancement of the RAAF's air-strike capability, as well as the Navy's and air force's extra capacity to intercept defending aircraft would ensure, as the White Paper so subtly states: " … the capability to contribute to the defence of Australia by attacking military targets within a wide radius of Australia" and "If attacked, we therefore would seek to attack hostile forces as far from our shores as possible, including in their home bases, forward operating bases and in transit. We would aim to seize the initiative and dictate the pace, location and intensity of operations".

But the DWP's own very clear statement as to the chances of an attack on Australia gives the game away. The document states: "The chances of an attack on Australian remain low. A full-scale invasion of Australia, aimed at the seizure of our country and the erasure and subjugation of our national polity, is the least likely military contingency Australia might face. No country has either the intent or the ability to undertake such a massive task."

The ruling class is under no illusion that this is for "defence" from "attackers". It knows it is firmly aimed at internal unrest ("the spill-over effects of intra-state conflict", as the ANU's Alan Dupont coyly terms it) in the countries of Australia's neo-colonial realm.

As the Melbourne Age's Garry Barker wrote on December 7, 2000 " "Surgical' techniques supported by technology will be needed, the experts say, because in the urban environments in which, even in the Pacific and South East Asia, Australia is most likely to be involved, it will not be possible artillery, air strikes or mortars...

"Therefore, tacticians and strategists believe, the future for our forces lies with small SAS-style, highly trained, flexible, mobile and closely integrated infantry units equipped with highly efficient communications systems and sophisticated anti-terrorist gear... Short of another world war involving the use of weapons of mass destruction, they say, future conflicts will be against guerrilla-style groups operating in and around urban environments."

The enemies that Australian imperialism and its barrackers have in its sites are forces similar to Falintil in East Timor or the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in West Papua — not forces like the Indonesian army nor the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) in Bougainville, not the Papua New Guinea Defence force (PNGDF), or the Moro liberation forces rather than the Philippines armed forces.

Of course, the Australian military also wants the capacity to deal with any radical or revolutionary states that may arise in region. But that capability provides it with flexibility. As SMH's Hamish McDonald wrote on December 7, not bothering to pretend that the DWP has much to do with "defence":

"The White Paper twists the notion of "defence' to one of retaliation and deterrence ...

" ... This year's White Paper devotes about four times more space than previous ones to the strike capability that supports this "proactive' policy... But the paper also notes: "Strike forces can provide excellent support to Australian troops deployed abroad, and may also offer a valuable option for contributing to regional coalitions'."

The DWP itself confirmed that non-defence activities are paramount in Australian imperialism's military plans when it states: "Military operations other than conventional war are becoming more common... The Government believes this is an important and lasting trend with significant implications for our Defence Force. Over the next 10 years the ADF will continue to undertake a range of operations other than conventional war, both in our region and beyond. Preparing the ADF for such operations will therefore take a more prominent place in our defence planning than it has in the past."

What are the sources of potential "insecurity" in Australia's "immediate neighbourhood" identified by the DWP? The DWP says that threats of attack by one South-East Asian or Pacific island country on another, or from outside the region, are "highly unlikely", and instead notes that "Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the island states of the South-West Pacific face large economic and structural challenges... We would be concerned about major internal challenges that threatened the stability and cohesion of any of these countries."

Underlining the fact that Australia's military is being reconfigured primarily to intervene in the internal affairs of the region — primarily against potential opponents of the pro-imperialist neocolonial elites that rule the countries of South-East Asia and the Pacific islands — are the DWP's clear commitments to military cooperation and aid with the region's regimes, and stated and implied political support for the elites against peoples seeking national self-determination and democratic reforms, and opposing imperialist-imposed economic austerity.

"Most of the time", states the DWP, "Australia pursues its strategic objectives in close cooperation with its allies, neighbours and regional partners."

The DWP notes Australia's good military relationships with the ruling elites in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and particularly big-spending Singapore.

The DWP reaffirms the Cold War-era Five Power Defence Arrangements which commits Australia, together with New Zealand and Britain, to come to the "assistance" of Malaysia and Singapore.

It adds that "consistent with [the Australian government's] goal of developing a network of defence relationships with regional countries, Australia will also seek to build a defence relationship with East Timor... Australia will seek to remain Papua New Guinea's primary defence partner [and] likewise, the government seeks to maintain our position as the key strategic partner in the South-West Pacific and will continue to remain active in this area."

At the recent Pacific Islands Forum, the Australian government announced the extension of the Pacific Patrol Boat Program for a further 15 years. Under the program, Australia has provided 22 patrol boats to Pacific island countries. The DWP notes that under this and other programs to the Pacific island countries' military and police forces "some 70 ADF advisers are posted to Pacific island states, and about 400 members of Pacific security forces receive ... training in Australia each year".


The DWP states that the government "is committed to working with the Indonesian government to establish, over time, a new defence relationship that will serve our enduring shared strategic interests", despite what it refers to as "lingering misunderstandings" over the recent events in East Timor.

The DWP warns that "Indonesia's size, its huge potential and its traditional leadership role in South-East Asia mean that adverse developments there could affect the security of the whole of [Australia's] nearer region and beyond ... Were [such adverse developments] to occur, Australia's security could be affected."

What are these "shared strategic interests" and potential "adverse developments"?

Canberra identifies Indonesia's three main challenges as being: 1. "The challenge of political evolution through democratisation and decentralisation" (translation: can the Indonesian elite and military keep control of the Indonesian people's demand for greater democracy);

2. "The need for wide-ranging economic reforms to put Indonesia back on the path of sustainable growth" (translation: can the Indonesian elite successfully impose the IMF/Western-imposed austerity programs demanded by western capital without sparking general unrest?); and;

3. "The resolution of religious, separatist and other challenges to the cohesion and stability of Indonesia" (translation: can the Indonesian elite and military defeat those peoples within its state demanding national self-determination, and defuse social tensions made worse by poverty and misery that austerity will trigger.)

The DWP bluntly states the Australian government's "deep support for Indonesia's national cohesion and territorial integrity", i.e. that Australian imperialism's and the Indonesian political and military elite's "shared strategic interests" are the defeat of the movements for national self-determination in West Papua and Aceh and the crushing of the anti-austerity movement. That will be the basis of the "new defence relationship" that Canberra is seeking to establish with Jakarta.

On December 14, 2000, appropriately at the launch of a foreign affairs department report on Australian investment in Indonesia, Alexander Downer, federal Minster of Defence, restated the government's mantra: "The consequences of encouraging Irian Jaya to become independent would be devastating for South East Asia. It is not a solution to break the country up". Downer added that it was imperative to Australian interests that Indonesia remained stable and united.

One important motive for Downer's swing through the Pacific during December was to pressure the island states against supporting West Papuan independence. On December 18, 2000, while in Vanuatu (the Vanuatu government is a strong supporter of the West Papuan's right to national self-determination), Downer reiterated Canberra's opposition to the West Papuan independence movement, declaring: "This is not the time in history when we should be starting to redraw the colonial boundaries... To try to redraw those boundaries again now would cause enormous instability." Downer said he believed many, many people would lose their lives in a situation like that.

In Papua New Guinea, Downer enlisted the support of the PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta for Canberra's anti-self determination stand. On December 22, 2000, Downer and Morauta reaffirmed that events in West Papua were an "internal matter" for Indonesia. "Both Australia and Papua New Guinea support and respect Indonesia's sovereignty in Irian Jaya", Downer stated.

Downer also added that he was very pleased "that the PNG government wants to do what it can to stop their territory being used" as a safe haven for independence fighters.

The PNG government is refusing to recognise several hundred West Papuan women, children and elderly people who have fled to just inside the PNG border as refugees. Port Moresby's stand has been backed by the Australian government and the Canberra office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Downer and Morauta are also concerned at the impact that the West Papuan struggle may have on PNG politics. There is strong sympathy for the West Papuan people and PNG's small left movement, around the Melanesian Solidarity group and Non-Government Organisation activists, have made solidarity with West Papua a key campaign. There is a fear that a West Papua solidarity movement critical of the PNG government's foreign policies could link up with the strong anti-structural adjustment sentiment, also largely organised by Melsol activists, to "destabilise" Australian interests in PNG.

The recent announcement by Australia that an extra $10 million will be provided to help "restructure" the PNGDF reflects Australian imperialism's need for the PNG force to be more reliable after its near mutiny — backed by popular mobilisations of the urban poor and workers in Port Moresby — during the Sandline crisis and its failure to defeat the Bougainville rebels.

That the spectre of a repeat of East Timor in West Papua haunts the Australian ruling class was acknowledged by the editorial of the December 19, 2000, SMH. It noted that "It is a cornerstone of Australian foreign policy to support a unified, secure, prosperous, and democratic Indonesia. Unfortunately, the present reality is that Indonesia is not particularly unified, secure or prosperous and its fledgling democracy is threatened by a resurgent military... Canberra remains steadfast in its support for Jakarta's opposition to independence for the Papuans", the editorial continued.

"Yet, the means by which Jakarta is maintaining its national integrity are becoming problematic and therefore challenging for Canberra. In recent weeks a brutal military crackdown and a round up of even moderate Papuan leaders suggests the Indonesian military is again using West Papua to reassert its power, undermining President Wahid's earlier efforts to seek a negotiated peace by offering Papuans autonomy in their own land." The editorial pointed out that crackdown was both emboldening and embittering the independence movement.

"In this environment", the editorial asked, "who exactly is Australia supporting within Indonesia's fractured, ruling elite with statements such as Downer's? And at what point do human rights considerations become so overwhelming that Canberra is forced to reconsider its strategic interest in smooth relations with Jakarta, because of domestic pressure at home? Despite what Mr. Downer says, it is privately acknowledged within some sectors of the Department of Foreign Affairs that, just as with East Timor, the bleeding of West Papua means that Australia's current policy cannot be sustained indefinitely."

However, the SMH rushed to add that "A switch in allegiance to the West Papua independence movement is not a solution... More useful would be real efforts to support those moderates within Indonesia, including President Wahid, who believe in a devolution of Jakarta's powers, a demilitarisation of the province and a guarantee of safety for the long-suffering West Papuan people. Already, the Papuan independence movement is becoming radicalised by the recent violence. Increasingly, Papuans are rejecting negotiated autonomy in favour of a violent independence struggle. Repression in West Papua is a disastrous blind alley for Jakarta in the shaky, post-Suharto era, Blind allegiance to Jakarta on the issue of "national unity' could yet prove just as disastrous for Australia."

The Age's foreign editor Tim Hyland also wrote in a December 28, 2000, article entitled "Why West Papua terrifies Australia's politicians": "Australia's foreign affairs officials are transfixed by two fears at they watch the disaster unfolding in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian province now widely known as West Papua. One is that the Indonesian military will deal with the Papuan independence movement the only way it knows how - with brute force and atrocity. The other fear is that this eruption of violence will prompt public pressure on Canberra to do something about it... The second fear — that Australia will be pressed to respond — will be realized if the crackdown leads to widespread killings that can't be hidden from the outside world, or if the conflict spills over into Papua New Guinea."

The wing of the ruling class represented by the SMH and The Age clearly believe that the Australian government is repeating its errors in East Timor when it continued to back the Indonesian military's long brutal repression there. That fuelled the Timorese people's struggle and generated enormous solidarity within the Australian population for the people of East Timor. That volatile combination forced the Australian ruling class to reverse its long-held policy and accept East Timor's independence, albeit in a process in which it has a substantial say.

Bougainville developments

Similarly, the DWP makes special mention of the threat to PNG's "national cohesion" posed by the people of Bougainville. The Australian government is opposed to independence for Bougainville. Confident of Canberra's backing, the PNG government's refusal to implement agreements to include the option of independence in any proposed referendum on Bougainville's future political relationship has caused negotiations to teeter on the brink of collapse on December 9, 2000..

Bougainville leaders have warned that the war on Bougainville may resume if the PNG government does not agree to a independence option in a referendum. Port Moresby is pressing for a referendum that is restricted to the endorsement of an undefined "highest form of autonomy".

Around 150 unarmed military personnel Australian, New Zealand and other Pacific island countries are presently deployed on Bougainville.

Fiji developments

The report to the October 2000 National Committee meeting pointed out that, in a replay of the Australian government's response to Fiji's 1987 coups, the Australian government has accepted military rule — and entrenched racial discrimination against Fiji's large Indian minority — in the name of restoring regional "stability".

According to the military-backed "interim" government's most recent timetable, a new constitution to replace the less discriminatory one adopted in 1997 will not be ready until late this year. Elections based on the new constitution will not take place until sometime between April and September 2002. A commission to draft the new constitution has been formed by the regime. It is stacked with people who are close to the coup plotters and the military.

It is clear that the Australian ruling class is ready to go along with the trampling of the Fijian people's democratic rights. The Australian and New Zealand governments — despite a lot of bluster and empty threats — have tacitly accepted the FLP's overthrow because they believe the elite, backed by the Fiji military, will best defend their considerable economic and political interests in Fiji.

This assessment has been put beyond doubt by Canberra's announcement on December 13, 2000, of a successor agreement to the Import Credit Scheme, the special arrangement that allows clothing manufactured in Fijian sweatshops to be imported into Australia on preferential terms. The decision was direct rebuff to the deposed Fiji government and the country's trade union and democratic movement which had urged that Australia not negotiate an agreement with the military-installed regime.

Downer said the plan was approved after commitments by the interim government to return to constitutional and democratic rule. This flies in the face of statements made by the Special Commonwealth envoy to Fiji, Justice Pius Langa just two days earlier in which Langa reported he had seen no evidence that the military-appointed government was prepared to usher in a speedy return to democracy.

It also comes after the regime appealed against a ruling by the Fiji High Court in November 2000 that found that Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara — who was forced from office by the military last May — is still legally the president of Fiji, not his military-appointed successor, and that the 1997 constitution remains in force.

The governments of Australia and New Zealand formally abandoned any suggestion that they supported the reinstatement of the Chaudhry government on December 16, 2000, when they stated they would accept a Fiji leadership named by "the properly constituted authorities of Fiji". With Kamisese Mara's retirement soon after the High Court decision, just who "the properly constituted authorities of Fiji" are remains a mystery.


The resolution points out that the Australian government is at the forefront of pressuring Pacific Island and South East Asian countries to adopt neo-liberal economic policies and privatisation.

Australian imperialism's role in Indonesia is more and more conditioned by its need to accelerate imperialist exploitation as well as to assist Indonesia's neocolonial elite to contain and suppress opposition.

In PNG, an agreement was reached with the IMF in March 2000 for a US$115 million stand-by arrangement, and subsequently with the World Bank for a US$90 million structural adjustment loan. Aid from Australia is conditional on the implementation of a IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Program(SAP).

On June 22, 2000, the Australian government signed a US$80 million bilateral loan agreement with PNG and provided technical assistance in budget and economic planning, collection of economic statistics, privatisation, taxation "reform" and other areas of economic management.

On December 19, 2000, Canberra granted a further loan of US$30 million. "The loan complements the considerable financial and technical assistance already provided by Australia to the reform program", said Australian treasurer Peter Costello. Costello said that both loans had been requested by the IMF in support of PNG's structural adjustment program demanded by the IMF and World Bank.

Vanuatu and the Solomons have also been pressured to implement what Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) describes as "wide-ranging reform programs" since 1997 — Orwellian newspeak for the selling of impoverished Third World countries' meagre public assets, reduced government spending and services, increased unemployment and poverty and reduced national sovereignty.

As the resolution states: "The Australian government, and other imperialist governments, are concerned with the problem of how to manage social unrest and dissent that will continue to arise from the implementation of neo-liberal deregulation.

"The Australian government is preparing for possible military interventions if social unrest and political instability threaten the capitalism in any part of its "back yard', which it defines as the arc of islands from the Indonesian archipelago into the South Pacific Ocean."

This is the real meaning of the DWP. It confirms the resolution's statement that the Australian imperialist ruling class can be expected to take an increasingly aggressive stance in the region to resolve, in its and the West's favour, crises like those that have recently recurred or erupted in Bougainville, East Timor, West Papua, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Such crises are likely to continue to arise and intensify.

They are the product of the distorted and stunted social and economic development that a century of imperialist exploitation has imposed on Pacific island countries (Bougainville, Solomons, Fiji) as well as the failure of imperialism's allies, the region's neo-colonial elites, to crush the long-held aspirations for democracy and/or national self-determination of subject peoples (Bougainville, East Timor, West Papua, Fiji, Aceh).

In many Pacific island countries, the ability of the pro-imperialist neo-colonial elites to rule in the old way is being challenged as societies evolve. Undemocratic chiefly elite rule is under threat in Fiji, Tonga and Micronesia. The Indonesian regime was not able to defeat the East Timorese liberation movement and the West Papuan struggle for independence is gaining strength and is likely to be the next major regional flash-point, much to the consternation of Canberra.

Imperialist-imposed neo-liberal austerity programs will intensify the social tensions within Asia and Pacific island countries, triggering national, ethnic, religious, "settler versus indigenous" — as in the Solomons and Fiji — and class antagonisms that the narrow, undemocratic elites may not be able to cope with.

US alliance

The White Paper restates Australian imperialism's enthusiastic support for continued US economic, political and military domination in Asia and the Australian government's military alliance with Washington.

Much of the proposed restructuring of the Australian military is designed to ensure that the Australian military can jointly police the wider South East Asian region in league with Washington's much more dominant forces.

The "strike" capacity is aimed at giving the Australian state the ability to launch conventional military attacks against future post-revolutionary states or radical bourgeois-nationalist regimes that may attempt to stand-up against to the imperialist powers under the pressure of the masses.

As the resolution notes, in this respect, Australian imperialism's posture is similar to that which prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, Australian capitalism today does have considerably greater direct economic and commercial interests in the region and the ruling class continues to hope for considerably more advances for itself. However, in South-East Asia, Australia remains US imperialism's junior partner — it will not, cannot and does not wish to act unilaterally in the same way as it does in Melanesia.

As the resolution outlines, after the second world war, Australian imperialist policy was closely aligned with that of the US in its emphasis on containing and, where possible, defeating national revolutions that imperialism feared could develop into "communist revolutions", i.e. the establishment of worker-peasant governments. Communist parties were playing key roles in the national revolutions in Korea, China, Indochina, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Australian imperialist policy in Asia was not motivated by a desire or need to protect major investments or to achieve a boost in commercial activities for Australian capitalists. Containment of social revolution was the overwhelming content of Australian imperialist foreign policy in Asia until 1975.

Australian imperialist policy was part of a general imperialist strategy in the post-war period to defeat and contain the revolutionary impulse unleashed after WWII - manifested in the Asian region with the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the 1945 Vietnamese revolution and the Indonesian national revolution in 1949 - and restore capitalist stability to Australia's near-region.

The DWP spells this out clearly: "The United States today has a preponderance of military capability and strategic influence that is unique in modern history", states the DWP. " ... The primacy of the United States is built on the strength of its economy, the quality of its technology, the willingness of US governments and voters to accept the costs and burdens of global power, and the acknowledgement by most countries that US primacy serves their interests. All these factors are likely to endure.

"The Government believes this will serve the strategic interests of the Asia Pacific region including Australia, and will promote economic, social and political developments that align with our interests and values."

The DWP goes on to declare that: "Our strong alliance with the Unites States, in particular, is a key strategic asset that will support our bilateral, regional and global interests over the next decade and beyond... The renewed vigour of the US-Australia alliance is founded on enduring shared values, interests and outlook ... It also reflects our awareness of the challenges that we face in the region over the coming years and the benefits we stand to gain by cooperation. For Australia, continued US engagement will support our defence capabilities and play a critical role in maintaining strategic stability in the region as a whole."

The DWP asserts that the US and Australia have a special relationship that is qualitatively closer than that between other states in the region. The US sees it alliance with Australia as central to regional security and as "a significant potential contributor to coalitions".

And, as if it was not already obvious, the DWP declares: "We will also continue to support the United States in the major role it plays in maintaining and strengthening the global security order".

Bipartisan support

The Labor Party welcomed the general thrust of the White Paper, reflecting Labor's long support for Australian imperialism. Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley was quoted in the December 7,2000, Age as saying that Labor had no "essential quarrel" with increased defence spending and criticised the Coalition for not having increased it sooner. Labor defence spokesperson Stephen Martin said the boost came 18 month too late and claimed that serious damage had been done to Australia's military capabilities.

Beazley, in a comment piece that appeared in the Age on December 6, 2000, before the DWP's release, wrote that he has been "alarmed" over recent years by "the erosion of the secure position [Labor] had built for Australia in the Asia Pacific". Beazley went on to state Labor's support for all the essentials of Howard's White Paper.

"We need to be able to strike at focal points or threats to Australia with aerial strike, submarine and special forces", declared the Labor leader, living up to the nickname he gained while he was Labor's defence minister, "Bomber" Beazley. "While our strategy must be essentially defensive, it cannot simply be reactive and must allow for the use of tactical strike capabilities."

Paul Dibb, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, a former deputy secretary in the Department of Defence and the main author of the Labor's 1987 DWP, agreed. Writing in the December 7, 2000, Australian Financial Review, Dibb asked: "Is this "the most significant reshaping of the defence force in decades", as the Prime Minister states? Or is it in a straight line of descent from the Fraser Government's 1976 DWP and the Hawke Government's 1987 White Paper?

"The answer is — despite the PM's claims — that its an evolutionary document, as good as it is. In short, it's the King James authorised version centred on the defence of Australia and adjusted for the new strategic circumstances in our neighbourhood."

Meanwhile, the Victorian Labor government of Premier Steve Bracks has signaled that it will enter a bidding war to secure as much of the approximately $24 billion for Victorian industry as possible. No doubt, other Labor governments and their minions in the unions will join the stampede.

The resolution's sections on Australian imperialism's military role will need to be amended to reflect the details of the White Paper, rather than those of the green paper that preceded it. The green paper canvassed the range of options for the Australian military that the ruling class was debating among themselves and included the ambit claims of its most hawkish elements.

As I mentioned earlier, the DWP represents the ruling class consensus of what is politically achievable in terms of military spending — not necessarily what the ruling class most desires. An important consideration for the rulers was their ability to sell a massive increase to the Australian people and whether they would embrace a policy of imperialist interventionism.

End of the Vietnam syndrome?

A question that has been raised by some on the left and, more recently, by ruling class commentators in the context of the release government's new military policy is: Has the Australian government's 1999 intervention in East Timor — and the left's leadership of the movement that forced the Howard government to reverse its previous support for continued Indonesian rule over East Timor — increased support among the Australian people for increased military spending and made it easier for Australian forces to be deployed against the peoples of the region?

According to the Age's David Lague and Michelle Grattan on December 6, 2000, "Mr Howard believes interest in defence has surged with a new generation free from the traumas of the Vietnam War and intensely interested in the ANZAC tradition."

The Australian's Cameron Stewart on December 6, 2000, claimed the "strong performance of the ADF in helping restore order to the devastated territory from September last year marked a sea change in the public interest in and support for the military ... At last, the government saw a political opportunity to increase defence spending without risking votes."

Is this the case? Has the Vietnam Syndrome been finally put to rest? The evidence is extremely meagre, to say the least.

While it is undoubtedly true that the Australian-led military intervention to put an end to the Indonesian military-backed militia killings in East Timor was popular — and the Australian ruling class and its mass media have attempted to milk whatever advantages out of it that it could — it is drawing a long bow to say that this has translated into a more generalised support for a policy military intervention in the region.

The fact that the motive for future military interventions must be clothed in the garb of "humanitarian" operations and "peacekeeping" indicates that the Australian population is nowhere near as gung-ho as the ruling class would like.

The East Timor intervention was popular because it was seen as a good thing to be helping an oppressed people win their freedom. The sort of military interventions that the DWP foresees will be the opposite. They will be about maintaining the region's peoples oppression and blocking moves towards freedom. The Australian people will see through them with the aid of our party and its participation in future anti-war movements.

What evidence there is indicates a fragility of public support for the military following East Timor. It should be remembered that soon after the East Timor deployment, government suggestions about the reintroduction of conscription went down like a lead balloon. And Howard's public admission that Australia was Washington's "deputy sheriff" in the region — a true statement that has not been disproven in the latest DWP but has been carefully rephrased — caused discomfort.

The DWP itself reports that there is long way to go before the Vietnam syndrome can be reversed. Market research carried out by the defence department in 1998 found that only 4per cent of those aged between 18 and 35 would "definitely consider" a career in the defence force, while another 7per cent who would "consider" such a career.

This lack of popularity is reflected in the military's recruitment figures, despite an intensive and extensive advertising campaign on TV, in much of the print media, and in schools and universities. In the last financial year, the number of people who decided that joining the ADF would indeed give them "the edge" fell short of the government's target figure by 25per cent, or more than 1300 people. Despite East Timor, reports the DWP, "Figures for the current financial year do not indicate a marked turn around".

According to the DWP, annual separation rates from the three wings of the military are presently running at between 11per cent and 13per cent, up from 9per cent in the 1990s. If the recruitment and separation rates of the last two years continue over the next decade, the military's total strength will be 12,000 short of its target of 54,000.

One of the motives behind the government's proposal to expand the school cadet scheme is to try to turn around the unpopularity of military service among young people. A 1999 census showed that 22per cent of full-time ADF personnel and 25% of reservists were former cadets. Former cadets also remained enlisted for comparatively longer periods.

Compared to the rosy forecasts of increased support for military spending by the likes of Lague, Gratten and Stewart, The Age's Louise Dodson on December 7, 2000, presented a more sober — and accurate — picture when she wrote: "According to political strategists, voters support defence spending, but do not give it priority over spending on more hip-pocket concerns such as health and education. For instance, the government dropped plans to introduce a special East Timor tax on high-income earners in the May budget, after it became obvious that Australians do not favour paying more taxes for the peacekeeping force."

It appears that the government and the drafters of the DWP recognise the existence of limits to public support for increased military spending. While the announced increases in military spending are substantial, they fall well below the 3.5per cent of GDP advocated by the most hawkish elements of Australia's ruling class and sections of the US ruling class. Under the DWP's projections, spending will hold steady at 1.9per cent of GDP. Clearly, the Howard government felt that such a huge increase — and the necessary austerity that would come with it — could not be sold to the Australian people, East Timor or no East Timor.

And the greatest concern that the ruling class has over the DWP is not its content but the ability of Australian governments to actually deliver what it has proposed. As Paul Barratt, a former secretary of the Department of Defence, wrote in the December 7, 2000, Age:

"Most of the commitments this government is making are a charge against the budgets of future governments ... Governments of both parties have since 1976 been preaching self-reliant defence of Australia, but no White Paper or other statement of strategic doctrine has lasted more than a budget or two."

Michael O'Connor of the far-right Australian Defence Association, an organisation that often has the ear of conservative politicians, agreed: "The commitments do not in any way bind a Beazley or even a Costello government. They don't even bind the Howard government if it decides for whatever reason that the promises should be deferred or abandoned ... the best crystal ball could not offer confidence that future governments will honor these commitments, indeed experience strongly suggests they will not."

The extent to which the present and future governments will implement the military expansion plans set out in this and future DWPs will ultimately be determined by politics; that is, by the balance of class forces as determined by the preparedness of working class leaderships to campaign against Australian imperialism and militarism, and the extent to which they can influence public opinion.

Socialists must join with the peoples of the Pacific and South East Asia to campaign against Australian imperialism's economic, political and military domination of the region.

The resolution outlines a range of general and more specific demands that the DSP puts forward that place our party firmly on the side of the oppressed in the region and which, if consistently campaigned for, will help shift the balance of forces in favour of anti-imperialism

The resolution states that it is duty of revolutionaries in Australia to oppose and expose the Australian ruling class's exploitative activities in the region. Socialists must join with the peoples' of the Pacific and South East Asia to campaign against Australian imperialism's economic, political and military domination of the region. Through its statements and press, the Democratic Socialist Party must explain to the working class of Australia the nature, role and history of Australian imperialism.

Socialists, through political action and propaganda, must build solidarity with all struggles against oppression in the region, including: national liberation struggles, like those in East Timor, West Papua, Bougainville, Kanaky and Tahiti; democratic struggles against imperialist-backed neo-colonial elites, like those in Fiji and Tonga; smaller-scale struggles by those affected by environmental degradation or loss of land rights caused by Western big business; and region-wide economic and environmental justice campaigns, like those relating to global warming, nuclear issues, toxic waste dumping, overfishing and recognition of small island states' territorial waters and resistance to IMF/World Bank/ADB austerity and Third World debt.

The DSP seeks to build links with, and encourage the development of, Marxist and socialist parties and currents in the region and do all in its capacity to help them publicise their ideas and activities through Green Left Weekly and Links, and via the solidarity organisations and activities we engage in. Strengthening the coordination between revolutionary and progressive organisations in the region which are building movements against the neo-liberal economic offensive will be a central part of Australian revolutionary policy.

Within this, the Indonesian archipelago remains the most volatile part of the area in which Australian imperialism has defined, with US blessing, as its primary arena of intervention. The Indonesian archipelago is also the area within Australian imperialism's direct sphere of interest where revolutionary and radical forces are developing most rapidly. It is clear that building a comradely relationship with these forces must be one of our highest priorities.

More specifically, the DSP opposes increases in Australia's military budget. It should be slashed to the bone, not expanded. As the government concedes, Australia does not face a military threat.

The military forces of the Australian imperialist state do not defend the security of the majority of people in Australia. They defend the security of the Australian capitalist class — its property and profits — against working people both within Australia and abroad, especially Asia and the Pacific. - The "security" of Australia's working people — in terms of lives saved and improved — would be far better served by ploughing the billions of dollars wasted on high-tech killing machines into hospitals, schools, child-care facilities and public housing, especially for Australia's indigenous people.

Similarly, "regional stability" for the poor peoples of the Asia-Pacific (as opposed to the area's corrupt, pro-Western capitalist elites) would be better achieved by diverting Australia's "defence" billions to no-strings-attached aid to help overcome decades of imperialist-imposed underdevelopment;

· The DSP unconditionally supports the right of national self-determination for the peoples of West Papua, Bougainville, East Timor, Kanaky and Tahiti.

The Australian government must pressure the Indonesian government to allow a UN-supervised referendum on independence in West Papua. Similarly, the government of Papua New Guinea must agree to the people of Bougainville's demand for a binding referendum that includes the option of independence.

· The DSP demands that the elected Fiji Labour Party-led government be reinstated forthwith and that Canberra be guided by the Fiji workers' and democracy movement on what measures be applied to achieve that end;

· The DSP demands that all Australian military aid to region's governments be ended and replaced with no-strings-attached development aid and unconditional, free of charge access for the region's young people to Australian educational and training institutions;

· The DSP demands that the oil fields in the Timor Gap be returned immediately to the people of East Timor and that the Australian government should abandon all claims to them.

· The DSP supports a genuine South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone that outlaws the passage through the Pacific of all nuclear-armed and -powered ships (including the banning of port visits), the transport of all nuclear-related materials, the banning of the mining and export of uranium, and the closure of all nuclear war-related military bases and facilities.

· Finally, the DSP demands Australia's withdrawal from all imperialist military alliances, cooperation agreements and joint military exercises; the immediate closure all US military and spy bases on Australian soil, in particular Pine Gap; and denial of access to Australian ports and airfields for US warships and warplanes.

These demands are not simply a wish-list but are demands that can be fought for and — at times — can mobilise and educate the Australian working class. They are demands that we can raise in our unions, our workplaces, universities and high schools in response to the activities of Australia's imperialist rulers.

The events around East Timor in 1999 showed that revolutionaries in Australia can make an important, even decisive, difference and can weaken and undermine Australian imperialist policy and shift the odds more in favour of the oppressed of the region. It is our party's responsibility to fight our ruling class's imperialist policies.