Prime Minister John Howard has warned that Australia needs to work hard to prevent South Pacific island nations falling into the hands of hostile groups causing instability.
Howard said in a media report that Australia would need to play a major role in the region for the next 10 to 20 years to prevent instability in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
"The South Pacific has the enduring problems of poverty, bad governance and corruption, and what we're trying to do is do something about both. It's in our interests strategically, historically and sentimentally," he said in the Sunday Telegraph.
"I can understand Australians saying, `Well, look, let's forget about it. Leave them to their own devices, don't waste any money,' but that's the wrong approach to take, because they will fall into the hands of the evil from other countries," he said.
Howard, who has recently sent forces to East Timor and the Solomon Islands to help restore law and order, said Australia was in a difficult position because of allegations of interference from other countries in the region.
The conservative prime minister has in the past repeatedly rejected attempts to paint Australia as the "sheriff of the Pacific."
The description has lurked ever since former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said Australia would never be accepted in the Asia-Pacific region because it acted as a "US deputy sheriff."
"It's very hard, because you get some early gains, then, as the shoes start to pinch, they start saying, `This is going too far, you're bullying us, you're interfering,'" Howard said.
But he said the alternative was more destabilizing.
"If we just throw up our arms and go away, you'll end up with these places being taken over by interests that are very hostile to Australia," he said.
"It's also walking away from our moral responsibility. We are far and away the most powerful and influential country in the whole area, and nobody else will do the job if we don't," he added.
Howard, who will stand for election for the fifth time this year, said part of his defense policy approach in a decade in office had been to equip Australian forces to deal with troublespots in the region.
"This is our responsibility. The rest of the world looks to us to do it, and the more we are able to play our part effectively here, the less is legitimately expected of us in other parts of the world," he said.
"That's not to say we won't do other things, but if we can have an effective stabilizing role in the whole Pacific region, I can assure you that is mightily important to the Americans and to our allies in Europe," he said.