CANBERRA, Australia – Australia will increase the size of its army by 2,600 troops to deal with rising security threats in the Asia-Pacific region and to contribute to possible future military operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prime minister said Thursday.
Citing recent chaos in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, where Australia has sent troops to help restore peace, Prime Minister John Howard said Australia faced "ongoing and increasing instances of destabilized and failing states in our own region."
Such problems could continue in the region for years, and Australia — as the largest and wealthiest country in the region — would be expected to help solve them, Howard told a news conference. He mentioned Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu as potential new trouble spots.
"It is quite obvious that we do need a larger army," he said.
Howard said Australia would also continue to contribute to military missions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Australia has deployed troops in support of U.S.-led operations.
He said earlier the army increase had no bearing on how long Australia intended to leave troops in those two countries. Australia currently has more than 1,300 troops in Iraq and the Middle East and about 500 troops in Afghanistan.
"This country does continue to have responsibilities broader than our own immediate region and ... as part of a coalition fighting terrorism around the world, we cannot fully anticipate where extra challenges in that area might come," he said.
Australia has ruled out making a major contribution to a U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to maintain the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah fighters.
The new troops would be the largest expansion in years of Australia's armed forces, which currently number some 51,000 in the army, navy and air force. About 4,000 Australian troops are currently deployed overseas.
Howard said the government aimed to have the first battalion of new troops ready to be deployed overseas by 2010.
The announcement was likely to be cautiously received in Southeast Asia, where Howard has stirred anger in the past by saying he was prepared to use pre-emptive force to protect Australia from terrorist attacks.
Indonesia and Malaysia have accused Howard of being a proxy of Washington after President Bush referred to Canberra as a "sheriff" in the region during a visit in 2003.
But Ross Babbage, chairman of the strategic think tank Kokoda Foundation, said the focus of Australia's security missions would likely be in the South Pacific rather than in Asia, which should help cool suspicions.
He said Australian planners are concerned that the military will soon need to intervene in Papua New Guinea, a nation of almost 6 million people beset by economic and social problems which is Australia's nearest neighbor.
"The big dark cloud that just about everyone has nightmares about is the possibility of a serious problem in Papua New Guinea," he said.
Opposition leader Kim Beazley, whose Labor Party has called for Australian troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, has described the army as "hopelessly over-stretched."