Dec 02, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Groundhog Day

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Simon Philpott

Despite the government's claims that the Defence White Paper is a forward looking and innovative document, its vision for the future remains wedded to an assumption that conflict between states is a permanent feature of international political life. It argues that 'changes [in the] dynamic Asia Pacific region could produce a more unstable and threatening strategic situation'. The White Paper is haunted by the twin implications of multiple poles of power in the wake of the Cold War, and the crisis in sovereignty in a region whose anti-colonial nationalism (including its Marxist variant) is under severe internal strain.

Australians find themselves living in a region in which the pitfalls and possibilities of postcolonial identity politics have spilled out of academic books and into day-to-day discourse throughout Southeast Asia. There is little doubt that so called separatists across Southeast Asia are encouraged by the tortured success of the East Timorese. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the Balkans conflagration, the possibility of redrawing national boundaries is today less unthinkable in 'the West', even if it is intolerant of refugees fleeing the conflict the reconfiguration of boundaries often entails. How else are readers to understand references to the likelihood that peace-keeping operations may become more common in the next decade and beyond? And what are readers to make of the remark that in just the next decade, 'governments will consider using the Australian Defence Force in circumstances that we have not envisaged'. Arguably, these comments imply that the evolution of political community may be incomplete in the so-called arc of instability.

The White Paper enshrines a fundamental contradiction: a commitment to the integrity of existing nation-states (especially Indonesia), and an awareness that 'nationalism... remains potent and... an increasingly powerful motivator'. Nationalism may once have been a centripetal force, but currently it exhibits centrifugal tendencies. Thus, despite the veneer of optimism concerning the prospects for peace and prosperity in the region, and while welcoming the growing effectiveness of the United Nations, the White Paper warns that international politics is characterised by the permanent threat of disorder . However, it has little to say about the conceptual future of the nation-state, or about the question of sovereignty (resource sovereignty, indigenous rights), or about the moral and ethical justifications for maintaining colonial boundaries.

The White Paper foreshadows a return to a doctrine of forward defence, and emphasises self-reliance in the context of the US alliance, which remains the centrepiece of Australian security arrangements. Does the Howard government opposition to the emergence of other new states suggest that it now feels it paid a high price (politically and militarily) for its East Timor policies? Paradoxically, defending the national boundary status quo in the wake of East Timor may draw the Australian military further into regional affairs than the White Paper intends. Moreover, the government's habit of trumpeting (white Anglo) Australian values, particularly in the context of its well-executed East Timor intervention, has done little in the way of narrowing differences and building on common strategic perceptions, a stated aim of the White Paper.

Aceh and Papua

Aceh and Papua (Irian Jaya) are complex problems for this and any subsequent Indonesian government with democratic pretensions. In neither case do demands for independence look likely to dissipate, and Papuan activists may have a case in international law for separation from Indonesia given the deeply flawed Act of Free Choice (1969). While a defence White Paper may not be the place to canvass alternatives for the future of Aceh and Papua, defence and diplomacy are acknowledged there as opposite sides of the same foreign policy coin.

The dead bat of opposition to change not only diminishes the 'Australian values' of adherence to democratic procedures, tolerance and respect for human rights, but also implies acceptance of the fact of political repression in the present in preference to the potential for bloodshed that the Australian government believes will accompany Papuan independence.There is a contradiction in simultaneously seeking political disengagement from Indonesia's internal problems while seeking to develop a sense of regional security with a state whose defence forces have inadvertently nourished the fissiparous tendencies so clearly evident in Aceh and Papua.

John Howard has made much political capital out of playing a populist tune, so it is interesting that the Community Consultation Team reports that 'the public' supports increased expenditure on military affairs which 'contrasts sharply with the views of some academics and bureaucrats'. Whilst it would be wrong to overstate the importance of the consultation to the overall tenor of the White Paper and the proposals it outlines, the report presents the government with an anxious public ready to bear increased defence expenditure because of 'heightened instability' and 'unpredictability' in the region.

However, if the Hobart public consultation is anything to go by, overwhelmingly attended by white, middle aged or older males and conducted in a suburban Returned and Services Leagues club, the views gathered by the process are unrepresentative of contemporary Australian society.There is a good case for taking such meetings into schools and universities, to gauge the views of those who will be paying for defence expenditure long after many of those at the Hobart meeting have expired.

It was profoundly disappointing to hear 'Asia' so willingly constructed as an enduring threat to Australian security. Can it simply be assumed that younger Australians, a far more diverse group than was the case two generations ago, share the old white fear of invasion from Asia? After all, for a significant minority of Australians, the threatening sea of instability of the White Paper is a rather more domesticated setting of personal origins and extended family.

'Traditional' interstate tensions remain visible between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, and the Koreas. But much of Asia's postcolonial history foreshadows twenty-first century problems: intrastate conflicts involving ideology, ethnicity, religion, economic inequality and forced dispossession of resources and land. Whilst the White Paper anticipates more regular deployment of Australian forces in multilateral, UN led missions, its twentieth century assumptions about international politics continue the long standing tradition of constructing Asia as Australia's security bnoire.

In indicating that Australia 'would be concerned about major internal challenges that threatened the stability and cohesion of... Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the island countries of the Southwest Pacific', the White Paper vainly attempts to place the legacy of colonialism at the end of history. 'We' may not like it, but the consequences of European and Asian colonialism remain integral to regional politics. Idealising the world as it is not the answer to current and future challenges. As the White Paper observes, international politics offers few guarantees, but a genuinely forward-looking and innovative document would not so readily link change with fear. To do this is to remain in the cultural loop of assuming that no matter what happens in Asia, it is a threat to Australia's security.

Simon Philpott ( teaches at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia. 'Groundhog Day' is a 1993 film about a man who keeps reliving the same day.

Inside Indonesia 66: April-June 2001

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