New Rules of Engagement

Scott Burchill


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.



John Howard


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.



Left Out


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.



New Orthodoxy


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.