Subject: Asiaweek Roundtable: The Regional Impact of E Timor Crisis

Asiaweek issued dated November 12, 1999

Diplomatic License

An Asiaweek-PECC roundtable considers the regional impact of the East Timor situation

The recent turmoil in East Timor wasn't just Indonesia's problem. It raised concerns among Jakarta's neighbors - and became an urgent global issue. Nations around the world contributed troops and support to the Australia-led intervention force or INTERFET, which has restored order in the territory and on Oct. 31 saw off the last Indonesian soldiers. A handful of ASEAN states and even China have been involved in the military operation, despite complaints by some that participation breached the principle of non-intervention in another country's affairs. With Indonesia's withdrawal, East Timor is poised to become an independent state after two to three years of United Nations administration. A U.N. contingent is expected to take over peacekeeping duties early next year. To consider the fallout from the crisis and other regional security matters, Asiaweek and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council convened a panel of three former national leaders - Jim Bolger of New Zealand, Bob Hawke of Australia and Fidel Ramos of the Philippines - and three other experts, including Australian Asian affairs analyst Ross Garnaut, South Korean opposition legislator Lee Shin-Bom and ex-diplomat Sarasin Viraphol of Thailand. The roundtable took place on the sidelines of PECC's meeting in Manila last month. Also participating: Managing Editor S. Wayne Morrison, who chaired the session, Associate Editor Tim Healy and Senior Correspondent Alejandro Reyes. Excerpts:

Asiaweek: Could the East Timor crisis have been averted?

Ramos: The U.N. planned for the plebiscite [on independence] and carried it off well. But afterward, planning was not effective enough. There seemed to be a vacuum. Normally, you go well beyond the immediate event and assume a worst-case scenario. You learn this in business school. A lot of anguish and bloodshed could have been prevented.

Bolger: But would the Indonesian government have allowed us to do anything before the referendum? The international community accepted public statements from the highest level of the [Indonesian] government and military that there would be a peaceful transition. Given that, on what grounds do you go in and tell them effectively that you don't accept that?

Ramos: Of course, I'm saying this from hindsight, but maybe some early negotiations with the Indonesian government could have been started. We must credit Australia for taking the initiative and picking up the ball. [Jakarta] must also credit moves by some of the ASEAN members to do something as an organization, short of military or police intervention.

Asiaweek: Yet there is a perception that ASEAN somehow failed to act.

Ramos: It shouldn't be called a failure. We just don't have the capability. But our intervention took the form of negotiations and diplomacy - and NGO support. We were there even during the election.

Hawke: ASEAN was never set up to interfere in the internal political affairs of its members. It's an exercise in complete stupidity to say that ASEAN didn't do what it wasn't set up to do and what it committed itself not to do.

Sarasin: The Thai response contradicts the assertion [that ASEAN responded slowly]. We responded very quickly when we were given indications by Indonesia that they were ready to have us come aboard and jointly intervene with Australia. That was the code of conduct, if you will.

Bolger: But even if it had been within ASEAN's purview, you still would have been left with the dilemma of how you go into what at that stage still was a sovereign country and say that we don't accept your assurances. That's an enormous dilemma. If you look at Kosovo, you see a different response by NATO. They did it with overwhelming power and didn't wait for the U.N. That was never going to be contemplated in East Timor.

Hawke: I've heard criticism about the way Australia handled the situation, but I can say quite categorically that [Prime Minister John] Howard was right in asserting the reality that you would be declaring war if you went in without permission. Our relations with Indonesia are at rock bottom, but they are recoverable.

Sarasin: If there were any criticism from Thailand, it was negligible. The fact that we volunteered to work with Australia and agreed to send more than a thousand troops is testament that we are working together.

Lee: Both ruling and opposition parties in South Korea supported the intervention, but the opposition was concerned about sending combatant troops because we have very big business interests in Indonesia - more than $10 billion in investments - and our firms employ more than 200,000 workers. We are also concerned that our troops are under an Australian commander because Indonesians have doubts about Australia's goals. We know we have to cooperate to restore peace, but we are in a difficult situation. Our foreign minister said that the U.S. requested us to commit troops. I criticized this heavily because we may be pictured as the deputy of the U.S. in Asia.

Asiaweek: Is there any significance to China's sending a team of police officers?

Hawke: China would have concluded two things. First, that what was going on [in East Timor] wasn't tolerable and it would make sense for them to be associated [with the intervention]. They would have also thought about whether if they [participated], would it have any implications for their own [internal] affairs. China decided that they should be associated, albeit in a modest way. This seems to be a perfectly sensible decision.

Sarasin: It fits in with China's strategy of bilaterally and multilaterally becoming [engaged as] part of Southeast Asia and gaining greater acceptance by the region.

Shin-Bom Lee: Koreans are watching Japan (which has contributed funds to INTERFET) very carefully with regard to its military role in Asia and possibly exploiting the East Timor situation. The Chinese and the Koreans, both North and South, are cautious about Japanese moves nowadays.

Hawke: I would argue that what may happen within Indonesia is potentially the greatest threat to security in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia. We need to help Indonesia get back on its feet economically. People don't fully understand the dimensions of the economic disaster. Absolute poverty has gone back up to 40%-50% of the population. If you have the combination of economic collapse and [separatist] movements like what you've got in Aceh and Irian Jaya, then it's going to be a pretty volatile mix.

Ramos: The IMF (which on Nov. 2 announced it would resume aid to Jakarta) can be more flexible. Indonesia has new leaders. The [Wahid-Megawati] combination is a high poker hand. The world community's main consideration should be to support Indonesia's viability as one republic.

Asiaweek: President Ramos has proposed that the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum's role be widened to include politics and security issues. Is this feasible?

Hawke: In an ideal world, it would be a good idea and I would support it conceptually. But given APEC's composition, you won't get agreement. Take China and Malaysia - I can't see them agreeing to this concept.

Bolger: I worry that because the APEC trade agenda is large, complex and, at times, controversial, some countries would feel more comfortable debating security. We would be diverting time and energy away from trade issues. I deeply believe that you are not going to get stability [in the region] unless you lift the economies up. Maybe this proposal's time will come. But for now, we aren't without a forum for security dialogue: the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

Asiaweek: U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan says that humanitarian concerns can trump sovereignty. Kosovo, East Timor - is this diplomacy for the next century?

Bolger: Let's see what happens in Chechnya before the secretary-general's views are cemented. Humanitarian concerns are paramount in many ways, but the dictates of realism are also equally paramount.

Garnaut: The world will be in a real mess if interventions outside the U.N. framework become acceptable. For all its imperfections, [acting under] the U.N. framework at least means that there is broad acceptance among the great powers. There is some utility in that.

Hawke: Does that mean there shouldn't have been any intervention in Kosovo?

Garnaut: There should have been more effort to do something at an earlier stage.

Hawke: But there wasn't. I'm not disagreeing with you, but the problem with the Kofi Annan exposition is that the reality is that you're going to have to deal with situations on an ad hoc basis. I doubt very much if you're going to be able to have an a priori formulation of principle which is going to satisfy every situation.

Ramos: What happened in Kosovo proves my point on East Timor. When you plan something, you had better prepare for all the downstream implications, including the worst-case scenario.

Bolger: Kosovo should not lead us to believe there is a new doctrine. It was an aberration. We'll make decisions on individual cases. Now that's not a perfect system. We should be treating each case the same. We should have a set of rules. But the world is not perfect either. I don't see any new paradigms for future situations. It's not going to happen.


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