Dec 16, 2017 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Dec 12, 2017

Canberra has turned its attention back to the Pacific. No more potent a symbol of this renewed interest could be found than the Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s visit to Tonga on the eve of releasing the Defence White Paper ‘Defending Australia and its National Interests’. The fact that Smith was convening the inaugural annual ‘South Pacific’ defence ministers meeting is certainly significant. But there is also substance behind this symbolism. The minister foreshadowed the new Pacific Maritime Security Programme, which replaces the Pacific Patrol Boat Project and forms the centrepiece of Australia’s new Pacific strategy. Canberra has some catching up to do after years of benign neglect. For over a decade, Australia and its US ally have been focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘War on Terror’. Operations in Afghanistan are winding down and the White Paper is sensitive to the implications of this major shift in tempo. Australia’s other large and enduring operation in the Solomon Islands is also winding down. RAMSI has been a major bridge to the region and ending this link will have an impact on the Solomons and on Australian defence engagement. The second principal task of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) identified by the White Paper is to “contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste”

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Canberra has turned its attention back to the Pacific. No more potent a symbol of this renewed interest could be found than the Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s visit to Tonga on the eve of releasing the Defence White Paper ‘Defending Australia and its National Interests’. The fact that Smith was convening the inaugural annual ‘South Pacific’ defence ministers meeting is certainly significant. But there is also substance behind this symbolism. The minister foreshadowed the new Pacific Maritime Security Programme, which replaces the Pacific Patrol Boat Project and forms the centrepiece of Australia’s new Pacific strategy. Canberra has some catching up to do after years of benign neglect. For over a decade, Australia and its US ally have been focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘War on Terror’. Operations in Afghanistan are winding down and the White Paper is sensitive to the implications of this major shift in tempo. Australia’s other large and enduring operation in the Solomon Islands is also winding down. RAMSI has been a major bridge to the region and ending this link will have an impact on the Solomons and on Australian defence engagement. The second principal task of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) identified by the White Paper is to “contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste”. Naturally this comes second to providing for the direct defence of Australia. However, it is widely acknowledged that a direct threat is highly unlikely to develop for a generation and therefore the focus on the Pacific gains priority.

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But what does it mean to islands countries?

In May, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith made his first official visit to the Kingdom of Tonga, joining counterparts from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga —but not Fiji—for the inaugural South Pacific Defence Ministers Meeting. The regional gathering came within days of Canberra launching the new Defence White Paper 2013. At a time when China and other Asian powers are increasing their regional profile, this policy document sets out the Australian government’s strategic vision for the vast area dubbed the “Indo-Pacific region”.

For the Pacific islands, the defence ministers’ meeting and White Paper flagged new commitments. The big announcement was the extension of the Pacific Patrol Boat Programme, which has provided vessels and naval advisors to islands governments since the 1980s. Under a new Pacific Maritime Security Programme (PMSP), many aging patrols boats will be replaced after 2018, with Western powers increasing maritime surveillance programmes in the Pacific’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States have established the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group to plan surveillance for the member countries of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).

At a time when regional military deployments to Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands are winding down, the defence ministers meeting highlights a growing trend for co-ordination between security forces in the region.

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