ANDREW FARRAN. Eternal vigilance or eternal military deployments?

Prime Minister Turnbull recently visited the Philippines to attend regional economic and trade talks attended also by US President Trump. Given the presence of both, what do we know about their commitment of military assistance to their host, President Duterte of the Philippines, to ‘contain’ insurgency in that country? 

It will be recalled that last month the Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne, announced that in addition to previous RAAF P-3 Orion surveillance flights, some 80 ADF trainers would be deployed in the Philippines to combat Islamic militants.

This move creates an uneasy feeling as it is just how the disastrous commitments in Vietnam and Iraq began. The fact that the announcement prompted so little public attention is disturbing in itself as we seem now to be in a situation where the government only has to point to Islamic militants anywhere and they are fair game for our armed forces to be despatched to the ‘global fight against terror.’

On what terms and with what safeguards we might ask? Indeed what checks and balances are in place to ensure that the Executive would be restrained from ‘mission creep’ with this new deployment?

What is it about Australia that it is in constant pursuit of conflict? In the 87 years since World War 2 we have been at war somewhere for all of 60 years. A previous Defence Minister offered the view that when one conflict ended we should expect another to maintain  the momentum then achieved by the armed forces. What other country treats the world like this, as a perpetual training ground? Experience shows that ‘training’ is rarely benign once the action starts.

Surely any commitment to a new conflict should be reported to Parliament (if sitting and properly constituted!) and full discussion allowed by our elected representatives. It should be noted in this regard that the Opposition seems too ready to let these serious issues pass through to the keeper. Instead we are left with, as informed comment, such as appeared in The Australian (26.10.17):

“The Turnbull government’s decision to urgently deploy Australian Defence Force personnel to the Philippines to train local forces for the fight against Islamic terrorists is overwhelmingly in Australia’s strategic and security interests” – referring later to the Philippines as a ‘partner and ally’.

When did the Philippines, a country run by a murderous dictator and afflicted by all manner of insurgencies of its own making, become an ally? Is it our role now, being “joined at the hip”, to substitute ourselves for the US when the latter is distracted or involved in contretemps with one or other of its allies? Better that we think from the head, not the hip.

In entering into this potentially open-ended conflict, we ask what are its specific objectives and end-game. Is a status of forces agreement in place to protect our forces from capricious and arbitrary local attention both on and off duty? And how are our forces to be prevented from engaging in actions which are matters of civil conflict or domestic dispute, with a high risk of civilian casualties due to the nature of the Duterte regime?

No such intervention or assistance has been requested by Indonesia, Malaysia or any other Southeast Asian state, to meet what the Minister describes as a direct threat to the region, apart from the alleged direct threat to Australia.

We reiterate our position that any new overseas military deployment must be undertaken in accordance with constitutional requirements and not just based on a subordinate clause in the Defence Act. It should be subject to informed discussion both in the Parliament and with the general public. Frankness and a realistic measure of transparency is what has been missing for years from the government’s notion of accountability in these military matters. It is time the government treated the public as adults.

Andrew Farran is an AWPR Committee Member,  former diplomat and senior academic in public and international law.

This article was earlier published in The Bulletin (#56) of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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4 Responses to ANDREW FARRAN. Eternal vigilance or eternal military deployments?

  1. tasi timor says:

    ‘what are its specific objectives and end-game’

    Andrew. Duterte is certainly authoritarian. But a dictator? Not yet. He was elected and can be booted out at the next election.

    The US and Australia realised as far back as 2006 that the AFP was by itself incapable of defeating the Mindanao insurgencies and decided to support autonomy. The end game you refer to is the peaceful and stable implementation of the Bangasmoro Basic Law [BBL] and probable Federal State/s of Mindanao and Sulu. There are rejectionists both in Manila and in the south who imperil a peaceful outcome, the most dangerous among them being the groups that have coalesced around a Caliphate. A failed BBL will make them stronger so it’s in our mutual interest to ensure it doesn’t fail. Secondly but perhaps more importantly for us, we get the opportunity to insert our boats patrolling the Sibutu passage, a strategic sealane for our NE Asian trade. We help Manila and Mindanao achieve a compromise, in return we get to patrol Sibutu. Win Win.

    There is a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement accessible on the net.

    Based on open sources alone, the recent updating of travel advice is reasonable. Communist groups have issued implicit warnings and an American businessman was shot dead in Mindanao, motive unknown. Not that the media here bothered to cover these things as they coincided with a mass shooting in the US. One wild card is the position the Communists adopt towards us training their enemies.

    As you correctly point out, neither the Opposition nor media commentators put any pressure on Turnbull to provide a fuller explanation, even were he inclined to do so, and ‘Informed comment’ from The Australian is so well informed their correspondent would have readers believe that Mindanao is a single, Muslim majority Province.

  2. Julian says:

    Thank you Andrew for bringing this matter to wider attention. I think you are correct about the distinct possibility of “mission creep” with this new deployment.

    Also (and like yourself) I deplore the lack of any worthwhile discussion, either within the Parliament or elsewhere. As to the other matters you raise, including the deployment’s specific objectives, a status of forces agreement, and so on, I was referred to a relevant discussion contained within a book review which appeared in last weekend’s Australian (November 11-12, 2017). The book has the unambiguous title: “Ethics Under Fire: Challenges for the Australian Army”. Edited by Tom Frame and Albert Palazzo. UNSW Press. The reviewer was Claire Corbett.

    During the course of her review Ms. Corbett makes the following observation: “As pointed out by former army captain James Brown in his 2014 book “Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession”, the Australian public is generally missing in action on defence issues and does not concern itself with even the most basic ethics of Australia’s military involvements. Nor do we grasp the implications of changing technology, such as lethal robots on the battlefield or the increasing precision with which we can kill…”.

    The answer to this apparent malaise could simply be that the public is never invited to a discussion of these issues; whether or not they would be interested is entirely another matter. Consequently I support your conclusion Andrew: it really is time the government treated the public as adults.

  3. Cavan Hogue says:

    While I agree entirely that being joined at the hip with the US military is not in our interests I think Andrew needs to check a few facts on the Philippines. Passion should be tempered by accuracy. We may not like Duterte but he is not a dictator. He is an elected president of a democracy who will face election again in due course. He seems to have considerable support among the people who elected him but also faces strong public criticism in the media and elsewhere. Mindanao is a very complex situation and there is a real danger that foreign support could be counter-productive but Duterte for all his faults is well aware of this danger.

  4. Andrew Farran says:

    Thanks Cavan
    The thrust of my item is the process by which our forces are deployed overseas.
    It was not intended as an exegesis of the internal affairs of the Philippines.
    In questioning this deployment clarity of purpose and accountability are fundamental and the nature of the regime being supported is a relevant ethical consideration. Duterte may not yet be a dictator but he is certainly a criminal, and one can be judged by the company we keep (though admittedly that appears not to trouble governments since Howard.

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