Not exactly "Some enchanted evening" - Australia's trouble in the South Pacific

The recent violence in East Timor has prompted the intervention of 2,000 Australian peacekeepers, whose presence has evidently been almost entirely unhelpful in stemming the unrest. Regrettably, East Timor has regressed in its several years of independence from brutal Indonesian rule. The toxic combination of unemployment, poverty, divided national allegiances, and the instability of a government dominated by a few bickering heroes of the independence movement has pushed the country toward anarchy.

Like so many others in Pacific island states, this mess has become Australia's to clean up. Oceania is dotted with tiny countries that are almost totally dependent on Australian aid. Generally, Australia steps in to avoid massive instability in nearby island states because no one else does. The most glaring example of dependence on Australia is Nauru -- the world's smallest independent country -- which was decimated by years of over-aggressive phosphate mining and is now insolvent, isolated, and virtually defunct. Australia uses Nauru as the site of a controversial off-shore refugee detention center in exchange for massive amounts of aid. Australia is also the primary benefactor of Vanuatu, a country notable primarily for a string of political assassinations, and the comparatively stable but still destitute nation of Tuvalu.

Australia has both a humanitarian desire to stop violence and a practical interest in avoiding a refugee crisis in nearby East Timor. Prime Minister John Howard finds himself in a difficult spot: the small peacekeeping force doesn't seem to be doing the trick, but Australians probably have little desire to see their countrymen die to solve the problems of yet another struggling neighbor. Moreover, the post-colonial plight of East Timor is basically Indonesia's problem -- but the Indonesians can't be trusted to re-establish order in a territory they might still prefer to control.

Indonesia is a favorite tourist destination for young Australians (many of the victims of the al-Qaeda bombings in Bali were Australian), and the neighboring countries have important economic ties. Yet their relationship is often fraught with tension, and has deteriorated over the past couple of years. The high-profile 2004-2005 case of Schapelle Corby, a twentysomething Australian boogie-boarder currently serving 20 years in an Indonesian jail for entering the country with four kilos of marijuana, significantly soured ties. Corby claimed the drugs were planted in her bag without her knowledge; Australians thought she received an unfair trial and an unnecessarily harsh sentence, while Indonesians resented perceived meddling in their judicial system by Australian leaders and opinion-makers. Sydney has also incensed Jakarta by granting asylum to people claiming that they were seeking refuge from human rights abuses ("What human rights abuses?") perpetrated by the Indonesian military.

The last thing Australia needs is more problems in its neighborhood. But the more it tries to solve the imminent East Timor crisis, the more it may create long-term problems with the other big kid on the block.