the first weeks of September last year, 70% of all public buildings and private
residences in East Timor were destroyed. At least 75% of the population of the
territory was displaced, with over 260,000 people being driven across the border
into Indonesian West Timor by TNI and their militia surrogates. Thousands remain
there in appalling conditions in militia-controlled refugee camps, where hostage
taking, killings and sexual assault are a daily occurrence. Somewhere between
500 and 2000 East Timorese were slaughtered during this period.
statistics measure the denouement of 25 years of Indonesian state terror in
occupied East Timor. But they also indicate the scale of Canberra’s greatest
foreign policy failure since federation. At the very least, one might think that
these grim statistics would prompt Australia’s foreign policy elite and its
adjunct – the Jakarta lobby – to rethink an approach to diplomacy with
Indonesia which has been so conspicuously discredited. Incredibly, this hasn’t
happened. Instead, those want a rapid return to business as usual with Jakarta
are attempting to retrospectively blame the Howard Government for the collapse
of the bilateral relationship.
a month of InterFET’s deployment in East Timor, which finally brought the
killings to an end, the editor of The Australian believed it was time for
Canberra "to withdraw from the military leadership role" in East Timor
because "an ongoing military presence by Australia could hinder the peace
process by continuing to antagonise militia groups", clearly something
beyond the pale. Fortunately for the people of East Timor, his request was
foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, was also keen to "make
up" with Jakarta as soon as possible. Attempting to exculpate Jakarta for
its crimes, Sheridan argued that "the Indonesian people are not the same
thing as the Indonesian military", though it is unclear whether TNI agrees.
Reflecting his employer’s distaste for foreign policy driven by
"humanitarian and moralistic concerns" (Rupert Murdoch), Sheridan
believes that the cause of the problem is Mr Howard’s regrettable habit of
listening to the views of his constituents: "the Government’s worst
statement was the Prime Minister saying in parliament recently that he wanted
foreign policy to be in step with public opinion", an appalling prospect
given the exemplary performance of Australia’s foreign policy elite in recent
Indonesian analyst, Bruce Grant, also identifies Mr Howard as the problem.
According to Grant, the Prime Minister is seen as "unsympathetic to
cultures and aspirations other than his own", a character trait that
apparently puts him sharply at odds with leaders in Beijing, Tokyo, and Kuala
Lumpur. Howard is "suspect" in Asia because he is a monarchist, lacks
"an emotional commitment to the fortunes of the region", and loves
cricket "which does not help in Indonesia". Grant doesn’t explain
the perils inherent in Indonesia’s bilateral relations with other
cricket-playing nations such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, nor does he note
the damage done to ties with Kuala Lumpur when Malaysia hosted a cricket
tournament during the last Commonwealth Games.
deference is clearly Grant’s recommended strategy for engaging with Asia. The
onus is on Australia, and only Australia, to change its ways. There is no
suggestion of reciprocity from the region, even in the light of last year’s
horror in East Timor.
to ANU Indonesia specialist Harold Crouch, Mr Howard’s response to the terror
in East Timor last year, rather than the slaughter itself, “was offensive to
many Indonesians”. The Prime Minister has a limited cultural understanding of
Australia’s great northern neighbour and “doesn’t quite know how to convey
things to Indonesians”, he says – true enough as messages such as “stop the
killing” clearly fell on deaf ears in Jakarta last September.
diplomat Tony Kevin also worries about Australia’s “provocative” behaviour
last year. “Indonesian military and strategic elites will not quickly forgive
or forget how Australian foreign policy cynically exploited their weak interim
president in order to manoeuvre Indonesia into a no-win situation”, says
Kevin. Australians may be surprised to learn they were seeking TNI’s
forgiveness for rescuing a defenceless civilian population from yet another
Indonesian military attack. They may also wonder why Jakarta is absolved of its
legal responsibility to maintain law and order in East Timor before, during and
after the August ballot – an exclusive right that the Habibie Government
insisted upon in its negotiations with Portugal and the UN.
only John Howard stopped basking in “jingoistic self-satisfaction over East
Timor” and said sorry, bridges with Indonesia could be mended. But according
to Kevin, Canberra isn’t up to the task. “This Government would not know how
to apologise for the way in which our diplomacy exploited and aggravated their
[Indonesia’s] president’s misjudgment and the TNI’s subsequent
brutality”. At least the message is clear. The East Timorese should never have
been given the choice of independence and it was Canberra, rather than Jakarta,
that encouraged the Indonesian military to turn the territory into a charnel
house. Howard should say sorry.
recently, professional Asianists have sought to engender a moral panic about the
current state of Australia’s relationships with the region by claiming that
John Howard’s intervention in East Timor is indicative of a broader rejection
of regional engagement. What they really mean is that Howard is ignoring the
specific rules of engagement that they have drafted for successive Australian
governments: and even more disturbing, the coalition isn’t seeking their wise
to his critics, Howard has disengaged Australia from the region, repudiating
"the Australia project in Asia" (Stephen Fitzgerald) painstakingly
nurtured by every Australian Prime Minister since Whitlam. Emblematic of this
has been the collapse of bilateral ties with Jakarta: "forty years of
bipartisan effort to build up a relationship with Indonesia has been seriously
eroded by recent events", argues Richard Woolcott without detailing these
"events" or specifying the responsibility Jakarta bares for the
downturn. "The relationship has been destroyed….Indonesians feel betrayed
by Australia", laments Rawdon Dalrymple, who already looks back at the
Suharto years with a nostalgia unlikely to be shared by the victims of the
dictatorship: "I fear we shall not see the like of him [Suharto]
to leading Sinologist Stephen Fitzgerald, "in the game of self-identifying
regions" Australia must "commit to and find acceptance in Asia".
Our "fundamental problem is that while we may have come to mouth the
sentiment of belonging to the region, we have done too little to belong in human
terms or to make the necessary cultural and intellectual adjustment".
the old orthodoxy, Asia was seen as an exclusive club which Canberra must seek
to join – being left out would be “a disaster for Australia”. Our need for
belonging, however, brings with it obligations of membership which require us to
alter our ethical and cultural outlook. The price of admission to the Asia club
is never explicitly conceded, but by implication it includes the sublimation of
our European political heritage, a less assertive commitment to universal human
rights, and a greater sense of cultural deference to Asian sensitivities.
"We" must become more like "them". The onus is on us and us
alone to change our ways – to adjust to Asia. Australia’s exclusion from the
1996 ASEAN-Europe summit (ASEM) in Bangkok and, more recently the ASEAN plus
three group, should be a cause of much domestic anxiety.
does Asia see itself this way, as a club? If not, should we?
alternative explanation for recent policy changes is that the Howard Government
is reflecting a popular unease with the rules of Asian engagement previously set
by Australia’s foreign policy elite – though not the need for engagement per
se. This discomfort dovetails with the Prime Minister’s personal ambivalence
about Asia, which is partly based on ignorance and partly on an exaggerated
sense of the importance of cultural differences in international politics.
believes that Keating Government’s style of Asian engagement was both elitist
and lacking in domestic popular support, hence it was ultimately driven
underground. In 1995 both the intention to negotiate and the content of the
Australia-Indonesia security agreement was withheld from the public until after
it was signed – an unusual departure from the concept of ‘due process’.
Howard is perhaps understating the need for government leadership in this area
of public policy, but he has correctly identified a widening cleavage between
elite and popular perceptions of how Australia should present itself to the
Australians believe they can be equal partners in Asia without sacrificing their
political or cultural identity: they merely ask to be accepted at face value,
rather than what they must change to be accepted. Adopting the role of a
demandeur seems undignified and promises only to lose the respect of our
interlocutors and ourselves. After all, differences between nations and cultures
can be respected, they don’t need to be resolved or dissolved: convergence is
unnecessary. Economic ties prompted by globalising forces, for example, are
rarely contingent on shared values. Australia’s most important bilateral trade
relationship with Japan was, after all, formed at a time when anti-Japanese
feelings in Australia were still potent from the Second World War. Many
Australians would feel they have little to learn from the legal and political
processes in most East Asian societies.
outlines of a new orthodoxy about events in East Timor last year are becoming
clear, at least as far as the Jakarta lobby is concerned. It’s a strategic mix
of inverted history and national self-flagellation.
the absence of any alternative regional responses to the slaughter, Canberra
“took too much ownership of the process” (Greg Sheridan), meaning the East
Timorese should have been left to their awful fate. Indonesia has nothing to be
sorry about and no reparations to pay. The Howard Government, on the other hand,
was “meddling” (Richard Woolcott) in Indonesia’s internal affairs and has
been engaged in “gratuitous displays of jingoism” (Peter Hartcher), “triumphalism”,
“neo-colonialism” and “latent racism” (Richard Woolcott).
to this re-writing of history, Howard is primarily to blame for the cooling of
the bilateral relationship between Canberra and Jakarta because he abandoned his
predecessor’s ‘special relationship’ with Indonesia and is personally
uncomfortable with regional engagement.
alternative view is that the Howard Government has deliberately distanced itself
from what it regards as the supine posture of its predecessor because it
believes the public disliked the morally dubious relationship struck between the
Keating Government and the New Order regime specifically, and what it saw as an
‘over-accommodation with Asia’ more generally. When the bilateral cheque was
cashed by Canberra last September it bounced, despite claims about the
“ballast” which Gareth Evans and Paul Keating allegedly infused into the
relationship. Howard and Downer know what they don’t want and much of their
new realism is based on product differentiation from their predecessors,
nevertheless they are struggling to coherently articulate the type of regional
engagement they are seeking. Distinctions between ‘practical’ and
‘emotional and cultural’ regionalism (Alexander Downer) are unhelpful and
confusing, not the least because they concede too much importance to culture
differences in diplomatic relations.
the Jakarta lobby, the bilateral relationship is refracted through the
personalities of Howard and Wahid. Leaders’ summits are more important than
building democratic institutions. The lobby is “making a ritual study of the
entrails of Wahid’s spasmodic performance – divining how Javanese, and how
much of an expression of Asian values it all is”, according to former diplomat
Duncan Campbell. This is simply replacing the Suharto cult with the Wahid cult,
a strategy which promises to repeat the mistakes of the past.
however, is unimpressed with Wahid’s unpredictable and erratic
performance, and is unsure that he yet commands support across the spectrum of
Javanese elite opinion. The Prime Minister sees no need for an urgent
restoration of good relations and is prepared to wait to deal with Jakarta on
his terms. In the meantime he would be well advised to offer tangible support to
those nascent democratic institutions which will embed a more liberal political
and civic culture in Indonesia. This is much more important than the
atmospherics of leaders’ meetings.
complex issues such as the fragmentation of the archipelago, the future of East
Timor, democratic transition, regional identity and the effects of globalisation
will take many years. Howard knows he has more time than Wahid.