Subject: AFR special report: What Asia really thinks of Australia

Australian Financial Review Thursday, October 7, 1999

SPECIAL REPORT [Reports from 6 countries]

What Asia really thinks of Australia

By Tim Dodd, Jakarta

Amid the harsh words, the gunfire, petrol bombs and rocks directed at the Australian embassy in Jakarta and threats of trade sanctions, can Australia's relations with Indonesia move back to a more civil level?

In this last month, Javanese pride has been seriously affronted over East Timor, which accounts for Indonesia's suicidal rush to ignore world opinion and turn itself into a near pariah.

And on the Australian side, the public has identified in the Timorese a brave and deserving underdog worth fighting for to save from terror and starvation.

A good sign pointing to reconciliation came on Wednesday when one of Jakarta's major newspapers, Media Indonesia, pulled the news off its front page and turned it into a giant poster which depicted the world, through the United Nations human rights inquiry, scrutinising Indonesia. It pleaded, via a poem, for Indonesians to look at themselves. It began:

When the world is warning with accusations Because our sins towards humanity Are knocking our conscience and our pride All stupidity has to be ended All arrogance has to be buried All violence has to be stopped And it ended: Before the world drowns us Stop the language of the gun Understand democracy and human rights Speak with the language of humanity

There is an influential class of Indonesians who think like this, who see where the pride of the generals and the impotence of Habibie has led their nation, and they are looking to the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country's highest parliament which convened on Friday, to lead the way out by electing a new president as soon as possible.

The imminence of the election, as early as October 12 if the MPR agrees to move the timetable forward, is convenient. It means there will soon be a new government, probably led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, that will have no vested interest in defending past mistakes and may be willing to forge new relations with Australia.

The fact that the United States, rather than Australia, took the lead this week in warning Indonesia not to support the militias in Timor and firmly telling the army it must get out of politics and return to the barracks, will also help take the heat off Australia.

In the economic arena, although many threats have been made, so far there has been little practical impact in interrupting trade between the two countries, worth $A5.7 billion a year.

The major commodities exported by Australia to Indonesia are wheat and cotton. Indonesian companies and industry associations have said they will look to countries other than Australia to supply them, but the result of this effort is yet to be seen. Currently 60 per cent of wheat and 40 per cent of cotton imported in to Indonesia comes from Australia.

Underlying Indonesian and Australia ties are the enormous number of business contacts, study programs and personal contacts that have been established in recent decades. These person-to-person relationships between Australians and Indonesians remain strong and, with a new Indonesian government, are likely to help pull relations back from brink.

But, notwithstanding the views of Media Indonesia, ordinary Indonesians continue to be stirred by lies in the popular press which are never likely to be corrected.

On Thursday the Jakarta tabloid Terbit ran a front-page headline "Australia burns people" with the picture of 10 charred bodies discovered in the back of a burnt-out truck in Dili this week. The caption stated they had been burnt by Australian troops.

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China - no trouble from this giant

By Rowan Callick, Beijing

Australia's leadership of Interfet is viewed in China - when it is viewed at all - as a demonstration that it means what it has been saying for a decade about committing itself to Asia.

The tiny group of Australia and UN watchers in the Beijing Foreign Ministry and universities has some misgivings about the principle of human rights taking precedence over sovereignty, but it is the US that is perceived as the main advocate of this move, not Australia.

The 50th anniversary of the People's Republic, the earthquake in Taiwan, the tension between China and Taiwan and the annual policy address of Hong Kong's chief executive next Wednesday are the issues that have been dominating the media in this part of the world.

Mr Liu Kin-ming, editor of the opinion pages of Apple Daily, Hong Kong's colourful, second-biggest selling Chinese language newspaper, says: "East Timor is already over, as an issue in the media here. The vote and the killings were widely covered, but nothing much since.

"I'm afraid most people in Hong Kong haven't paid much attention to Australia's role," Liu says, "perhaps because this time the Indonesians were attacking East Timorese and not Chinese as earlier this year."

"Most people who have an opinion believe the peacekeepers should have gone in earlier. And they support the Australians' role because they don't want the US to dominate the United Nations. Australia has been trying quite hard to be a partner in this region, and this action helps it achieve this aim."

In mainland China, criticism of John Howard made in the Australian press has been reported by the official newsagency, Xinhua, without additional Chinese comment. This is in keeping with China's general principle of not commenting on such issues once it is clear they have become loaded in domestic political terms.

But the very reporting of Australian criticisms underlines that senior cadres feel uncomfortable about the involvement of countries in what it views as others' domestic affairs, aware that Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang may also prove vulnerable.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman responded to a question at a briefing, by saying that the UN force was a good thing, and was starting to settle the situation down in East Timor. She declined to elaborate, saying: "I am not going to make a comment on Australian politics."

The demise of Australia's defence treaty with Indonesia is probably viewed with guarded but so far unexpressed satisfaction by Beijing, which originally feared that it could become an anti-Chinese pact. And China remains guarded about its own relationship with ASEAN, while its claims to Spratly islands remain contested by ASEAN countries.

At a popular level, it has not been forgotten that the Indonesian riots of earlier this year were substantially directed against Chinese Indonesians.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post published on Monday an unusually long editorial stating: "The argument for an international tribunal to bring the guilty to justice in East Timor becomes overwhelming." Most letters to the paper on the topic have agreed, calling for tougher international action. According to a diplomat in Beijing, the relationship between Australia and China "is in such good shape, and the issue so apparently remote, that people are reluctant to go on the front foot in criticising Australia on it, even in private".

The vote on becoming a republic, he says, may attract more interest.

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Japan - a rethink on its own role

By Andrew Cornell, Japan

While there has been an adverse response in South-East Asia to Australia's role in East Timor and the so-called ŒHoward Doctrine', there has been no such negative reaction from North Asia.

In Japan, the issue has engendered another intense session of soul-searching about the role Japan should take in such operations, particularly as the largest foreign donor to and investor in Indonesia.

The backlash against Australia has been widely covered in the Japanese media, but largely in reference to South-East Asian reaction.

Indeed, that backlash has prompted some officials to lobby for the wider deployment of Japan's Self Defence Forces (SDF).

According to Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, "The most important thing at the moment is to ensure stability in East Timor and to prevent negative repercussions in other parts of Indonesia."

"Indonesia has negative feelings toward Australia, the main component of the multinational force in East Timor, so it is necessary to send military forces from those countries that Indonesia recognises as being friendly states." Komura has nonetheless implicitly criticised Western involvement in the affair in his attempts to juggle Japanese diplomatic, constitutional and business imperatives.

Prior to the deployment, he called on the international community to respect Indonesia's opinions on what form of multilateral peacekeeping force was needed. He also said it would be wrong to think it was important to punish Indonesia.

The comments were interpreted as an indirect attack against US and other attempts to persuade Indonesia to accept an international peacekeeping force by threatening to cut economic assistance.

Senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials say that despite in-principal support for greater participation from both government and opposition parties, it would be difficult for Japan to commit troops to East Timor - although constitutional experts dispute that position.

Meanwhile, the public and opinion pages have called for a firmer voice from Japan which constantly struggles with being seen as "in Asia but not of Asia".

Stinging criticism from France, where Le Monde branded Japan "a coward" for not facing up to the crisis, was widely reported. Japanese papers have also been critical of the Indonesian regime for its failure to maintain peace in Indonesia.

"The Indonesian Government should bear in mind that if it were unable to restore public security even after taking the last-resort measure of martial law, its already-shaken international credibility would be seriously undermined," said Sankei Shinbum.

Tokyo Shimbun said if President Habibie "had sufficient leadership and intellectual prowess in international affairs" the upheaval in East Timor could have been averted.

The overwhelming tenor of the public and media opinion in Japan is for Japan to show more leadership in Asian affairs.

Even the conservative Nihon Keizai Shinbum business paper editorialised: "Why did Indonesia's greatest provider of aid not use its economic might earlier [to persuade Indonesia to accept an international peacekeeping force]?"

Japan has said it will be the largest financial donor to East Timor. The sum is likely to be in excess of $US100 million but Foreign Ministry officials say they are still gathering information.

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Thailand - a military partner is sensitive

By Bruce Cheesman, Bangkok

It didn't take long for Australia to use up much of the goodwill fostered by Canberra's backing of Thailand's candidacy for the top post at the World Trade Organisation.

Foreign Ministry officials have repeatedly praised Australia for not backing down in the face of strong opposition from the US to Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, the deputy Prime Minister, as the head of the WTO. However, the same officials were quick to denounce the so-called Howard Doctrine.

The metamorphosis of Australia from hero to villain in the Thai media was almost an overnight phenomenon with many columnists in top newspapers savaging Howard following reports he believed Australia would be deputy sheriff to the US in Asia.

Several columnists gave Australia a lesson in regional sensitivities, stressing that it was too premature to speak about a prominent security role in Asia for Canberra.

Australia's ambassador to Thailand, Mr William Fisher, was quickly dispatched to put out the media fires. While most of Australia's top diplomats in Asia were given similar jobs, high priority was given to dousing the flames in Thailand as Bangkok, second-in-command of the East Timor peacekeeping operation, is arguably Canberra's main ally among ASEAN countries at present.

With Thailand committing the second-largest number of troops to the operation behind Australia, Canberra wants Bangkok firmly on its side. Thailand has the highly sensitive task of acting as the mediator between UN troops and the Indonesian military.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has been a rare advocate of a Western role in East Timor. "We can't do it by ourselves. Everybody has to work together," he told AFP, adding that the regional economic crisis had limited the ability of Asian nations to respond.

Bilateral ties were also tested by reports attributed to senior Thai military sources that the high command was unhappy at Australian troops being "too aggressive" in East Timor. Ultimately, concern at a greater regional role for Australia, and criticism of diggers in East Timor being overly zealous, has the same provenance.

Thailand, like the rest of ASEAN, has a superpower phobia, whether the West or China, so claims of Australia being a "deputy" for the US rang immediate alarm bells. Furthermore, there is the added paranoia of alienating ASEAN neighbours. Australia, praising Thailand for its quick response in accepting a leading role in the taskforce, has overestimated the level of support in Bangkok for peacekeeping.

There will be no cheering squads in Bangkok when the first Thai troops hit the beaches in East Timor at the weekend.

Outside of the military, Government and academia, there is little interest among Thais, as the security fears are still vague, whereas Australians can seeing an impending implosion at their backdoor.

The level of opposition to East Timor among well-informed Thais is much higher than Australian diplomats would like to admit. In the military there is widespread disquiet at stepping on the toes of the Indonesia army.

It is estimated that almost 80 per cent of the Thai military have qualms, although not expressed openly, that interference in Indonesia could be a Pandora's Box for a similar scenario in Thailand.

There are fears among the military that if the economy degenerated further, or if there were difficulties with the royal family, the precedent set by East Timor could lead to Western peacekeeping forces in Thailand.

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Malaysia - the country is unhappy, again

By Tim Dodd, Jakarta

When Paul Keating called Mahathir Mohamad "recalcitrant" in 1993, the word caused a rift in relations due to the Malaysian perception that the Australian Prime Minister had insulted his Malaysian counterpart. After Keating finally apologised no long-term harm was done to the relationship between the two countries. It was an essentially personal issue between a prickly politician and a stubborn one.

But with John Howard being quoted 10 days ago as saying Australia would be the deputy of the US in keeping the peace in Asia, the impact is likely to be far more lasting in the region. Apart from Indonesia, the nation likely to take most long-term offence is Malaysia.

Because it is not intimately involved in the Timor crisis, Malaysia is able to play the role of observer and critic. And the Howard gaffe is one more piece of evidence for Mahathir to argue his case that the West is out to dominate his country.

"For the poor and the weak, for the aspiring tigers and dragons of Asia, the 21st century does not look very promising," he said this week. "Everything will continue to be cooked in the West."

Mahathir also joined Indonesia in attacking Australia's "heavy-handed dealing" in East Timor. "I have seen pictures of Australian troops pointing guns at almost everybody. Is it necessary to point guns at people who are obviously unarmed?" he asked.

Putting aside the issue of how Australian troops have really behaved in East Timor - they have operated with the utmost caution to avoid inflaming sensitivities - Mahathir now has an issue with Australia that goes far beyond the personal insult which he took from Keating's recalcitrant remark. The fact that Howard pointed out (belatedly) that he did not actually utter the words "US deputy" has done little to change the Malaysian view.

"It was a completely unnecessary remark," says Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, director-general of Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies. "This one is not personal; it's not just Malaysia, it's Indonesia and the region. It's a much bigger issue. It could not have gone uncommented upon." Certainly Howard's remark has fuelled the conspiracy theories, already popular in South-East Asian countries, that Australia's intervention in East Timor is not motivated by humanitarian concern.

Middle-class Asians, even those educated in Australia, see deeper motives. They believe Australia is seeking economic gain, looking to project its power or perhaps merely to humiliate Indonesia and other Asian countries. Few Asians see the East Timor situation as most Australians do, that Howard was forced act after Indonesia had created a humanitarian crisis.

Bruce Gale, a Singapore-based analyst for the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, says the Howard's comment reminded him of Harold Holt's famous "All the way with LBJ" remark.

"That sort of statement plays to the traditional view of Australia as being the willing agent of the US and Western interests in Asia. It's going to take a long time to live that one down,' Gale says.

For Australia, the Malaysian reaction to Timor crisis spotlights the problem it has in living in an Asian part of the world but, politically and culturally, belonging to the West. It is tugged in two directions and there is no easy reconciliation.

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Singapore - the gain from Indonesia's pain

An AFR correspondent

As Britain's Lord Palmerston once famously said, there are no such things as permanent friends, just permanent interests. Singapore is probably the arch-exemplar of that credo among the members of ASEAN. Like Australia, it is a direct neighbour of Indonesia but, being a city-state of just four million people in the wider archipelago of more than 250 million, it fears Indonesia's current unruliness somewhat more, the East Timor outrages notwithstanding.

Singapore is forever mindful of its size, its relative sophistication and wealth and the fact that it is essentially a Chinese island in a Malay sea, as Lee Kuan Yew once described it. B.J. Habibie has put it rather more bluntly, calling Singapore a red (aka Chinese) dot on a green (Islamic) map. While such comments play well to the Indonesian and Malaysian heartland, they heighten in Singapore's sense of vulnerability.

It is no coincidence that one of the closest countries to Singapore outside Asia is Israel. Like Israel, Singapore has developed a bristling and well-trained military and self-defence apparatus, some of which has been engaged in Interfet. Also like Israel, Singaporean leaders go out out of their way to cultivate US military involvement in the region, and not just because the majority of its trade and manufacturing heads to the US.

Australia's High Commissioner in Singapore, Murray Maclean, underlined the two countries' "warm" links in a speech last week at a function to mark the Sydney Olympic Games. Speaking as Canberra was massing support for Interfet, he wasted no opportunity to praise Singapore on its concern for events in the region and to explain Australia's suddenly closer engagement than his masters at DFAT might have envisaged before East Timor happened.

Singapore has refrained from joining the wider Asian chorus criticising Australia, but at the same time neither has it paraded the fact that it has contributed two ships and a logistic force to Interfet. The tightly-controlled local press, the most reliable barometer of Goverment thinking outside the Government itself, has covered the Indonesia crisis with admirable candour and often gripping detail.

Singapore was alarmed when the Indonesian crisis bubbled over on its doorstep in August when Catholic migrants and Protestant Bataks from Sumatra rioted on Batam island, just a 30 minute ferry ride from Singapore, and where Corporate Singapore has shifted much of its production lines. The deaths of at least 25 people was not hidden from Singaporeans, as has been the case in the past. It has also an open secret that at least one of Singapore's outlying islands has been prepared as a potential holding centre if Indonesia's problems bubble over into an exodus of refugees. That's Singapore exercising its famously careful administration, though diplomats here say Indonesian refugees would likely make first for Malaysia.

Ironically, Singapore has done quite well out of the Indonesian crisis. Its economy has held up the best of all ASEAN members, in part because of the capital flight of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese business community after the pogroms by Indonesian mobs in May.

Chinese money is still to return to Jakarta in large order since it is doing quite nicely in Singapore, where the sharemarket trades around pre-crisis levels, much of that rise this year.

Singapore has not openly criticised Jakarta - it never does - but Singaporeans have been moved by the East Timor crisis and the ongoing rioting in Jakarta and other provincial cities.


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