Perceived threats to Australia’s security convinced the government there to lead an intervention force in the Solomon Islands, an East-West Center specialist said, referring to the decision as a “pre-emptive strike” to stop terrorism.
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institution (ASPI) warned the Solomons could become a security problem for Australia if the Pacific nation collapsed, said Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, an East-West Center research fellow from the Solomon Islands. The report suggested that the Solomons could be used as a terrorist base or become involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.
Australia’s “cooperative intervention is very similar to the U.S. pre-emptive strike to stop terrorism,” Kabutaulaka said. “Australia decided to do this because of its own strategic concerns.”
Australia has stressed that it is heading a “cooperative intervention” requested by the Solomons government, he noted. But when the island nation asked for similar help before the 2000 coup there, Australia said no.
A number of events since then have likely changed Australia’s mind: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. war on terrorism in which Australia has become a major partner, and the Bali bombing that claimed 59 Australian tourists as its victims.
Also, Australia has taken on a larger role as the “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific region. It led U.N. peacekeeping forces in East Timor and was a major ally in the war in Iraq. “Australia is a newfound power in the region and the world,” Kabutaulaka said. “Australians are coming to realize they are a power.”
Australia is set to lead an intervention force of about 2,000 military and police, also coming from New Zealand and other Pacific island countries, to help restore law and order in the Solomon Islands. The small nation has been torn apart by a coup three years ago and continued fighting.
“There is no evidence that the United States is telling Australia to do this, but enough to say there is a lot of interaction and influence on each other’s policies,” Kabutaulaka said.
Since the Bali bombing, Australians are more aware of their proximity to Southeast Asia and possible terrorist bases. However, Kabutaulaka doesn’t believe the Solomon Islands would be attractive to terrorists. “It’s too small. If terrorists came, it wouldn’t be a secret. If I was a terrorist in Indonesia, I don’t have to come south (to the Solomons) to set up.”
However, he said money laundering and drug trafficking are real possibilities. “Other Pacific island nations are already doing it. You don’t need a collapsed state.”
Regarding the future of the Solomon Islands, Kabutaulaka said the public institutions, including the police, have been “hijacked by former militants and politicians and used for their own purposes.” The intervention “could consolidate the positions of corrupt politicians and police. The Australians must make sure the intervention does not do that.”
Kabutaulaka, who specializes in governance in Pacific island nations, believes an interim government consisting of the current administration, opposition members and civil servants “with credibility” should be appointed until a new election can be called. He believes the 2002 election, although monitored by outside observers, still took place “under duress and guns” imposed on voters before and after the actual election.
“A new election will be costly but if we’re concerned about regime change, we must have it.”