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How Australia can build a secure region: grow relationships with our neighbours

By Rhonda Chapman - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

Conflict and tensions in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, East Timor, Bougainville and Indonesia show just how unstable our region has become. The challenge this presents Australia is the development of a fully integrated policy approach to regional security that is underpinned by sustainable development policies which focus on poverty reduction. This will require closer cooperation between the NGO sector, and the departments of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Treasury and AusAID. Within the Aid Program cross-cutting approaches to peace building, the protection of human rights, humanitarian assistance, good governance and poverty reduction will need to be strengthened.

This more cooperative approach is reflected in the recent statement to Parliament by Australia’s Foreign Minister. "Australia’s development cooperation stands alongside the defence and diplomatic arms of government in working for regional stability." (Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, Tenth Annual Statement to Parliament on Australia’s Development Cooperation Program, 29.11.2000)

It is clear from Australia’s recent involvement in conflict situations that we can contribute effectively to the prevention of conflict and to peace keeping, but it must be underpinned by sound poverty reduction strategies if it is to be sustainable. The Solomon Islands is a case in point.


Australia’s role in brokering the Townsville Peace Agreement, establishing a peace monitoring force and facilitating the retrieval of weapons has been crucial. However this could amount to little if the root causes of the conflict are not addressed. Support is needed for the resolution of land disputes, establishing employment programs for young people, assisting the efforts of women in reconciliation work and assisting in that nation’s economic and legal reforms which respect and protect human rights.

NGOs play a particularly strategic role in their knowledge of local conditions and through their partnerships with local communities and need to be central in the development of effective conflict resolution and sustainable development programs.

A significant part of any regional security strategy therefore lies in support for poverty reduction and more equitable sustainable development—the key aim of Australia’s development cooperation program. Put simply, aid is crucial for successful conflict resolution.

As the Foreign Minister continued in his parliamentary address: "The linkages between economic growth and development and enhanced prospects for peace and security are clear." ACFOA believes these linkages require a whole of government approach to regional security; one that understands not only the linkages between defence and aid but also the complex interplay of trade and investment flows, financing development, human rights, environmental sustainability and development cooperation programs.

Thus the need to invest in a longer term integrated regional security and sustainable development approach. This approach will require sufficient resources to be diverted into securing long term regional stability and this will depend on political will as well as on budgetary commitments. It means that additional expenditure will be needed not only for defence and peace keeping but also for trade assistance, for debt relief and for sustainable development cooperation programs. A more robust and economically productive region is in Australia’s interest. Apart from the more obvious benefits of increased trade and investment markets, Australia will also benefit from a reduction of claims for asylum, a healthier and more sustainable regional environment; a reduction in the spread of HIV/AIDS; decreased drug trafficking and ultimately a reduced dependence on Australia’s foreign aid budget.

Australia’s concept of regional security must extend beyond planning for conventional conflicts to include measures to reduce the growing regional economic inequality, protect and expand human rights and democracy, and protect the environment. Such a strategy needs to look not only at ways to deal with conflict when it breaks out, but ways in which action can be taken early enough to be able to contain conflict and prevent the slide into violence.


Events over the year 2000 continued to provide graphic proof of just how insecure and unstable Australia’s immediate region has become. But while the situation in East Timor and Indonesia, and now events in the Solomon Islands and Fiji, continue to fire domestic debate on Australia’s defence policy, ACFOA believes much of this continues to take place without a clear vision of the real threats to Australia’s security.

These include:

  • PNG, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Indonesia, and the centrality of ‘horizontal conflicts’, where identity groups conflict, often in the context of social breakdown, increased inequality, lack of human rights and resource scarcity.
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This article is based on the Australia Council for Overseas Aid’s Submission to the 2001-2002 Federal Budget.

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About the Author

Rhonda Chapman is ACFOA Director of Membership Services.

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Australian Council for Overseas Aid
Federal budget 2001
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