April 19, 2007 3:00 am

Downer defends Pacific policing

Australia plans to continue intervening in troubled Pacific island neighbours even as criticism from local leaders of its forceful policing methods intensifies, Alexander Downer, the Australian foreign minister, warned yesterday.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Downer said: "Criticism from wrongdoers . . . never worries me."

Without naming specific politicians in the Pacific region, he added: "We have never tried to make ourselves popular with extremists, nationalists and kleptocrats. I think Australia's interventions have been extremely welcome by the ordinary people [in the Pacific] . . . But a minority . . . don't like Australia because Australia stands between them and the honey pot.''

In the past year Australia has suffered several setbacks in its efforts to bring law and order to the Pacific, notably in Fiji, whose government was ousted in a military coup, and Tonga, which was rocked by serious rioting in November.

Mr Downer acknowledged that political instability remained a serious concern but insisted the situation in the region was not uniform.

Papua New Guinea could be seen as "a success story", he said, notably because of its return to a budgetary surplus. He also highlighted economic progress in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where Australia maintains a military presence despite a tense relationship with the government.

But, Mr Downer said, there was "a fair way to go" before the problematic situation in Fiji could be resol-ved, while Tonga remained "a work in progress".

Mr Downer said Australia had a duty to do more than "farm out dough". He said: "We do have a defence force in this country and if there are circumstances where we can make a contribution to helping people somewhere in the world, then we will . . . I happen to think it is not virtuous to walk past people who are in trouble and look the other way."

Australia is preparing to send 500-600 more troops to Afghanistan, doubling its presence there shortly after a government review warned about placing excessive pressure on senior people in the defence forces. But Mr Downer said the military leadership had not complained about being overstretched by Iraq and other overseas commitments.

Last month Australia and Japan signed a new security agreement that will notably provide joint troop drills.

Mr Downer, whose own father was a Japanese prisoner of war, said: "I think, outside of China and Korea, that in Asia the sensitivities about the Japanese are waning and they will continue to wane . . If Japan could become more involved in peacekeeping, I think it would be very appropriate."

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