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Asia Bristles at Australia's New Regional Role

By Sonny Inbaraj, IPS, 27 September 1999

DARWIN, Australia, Sep 27 (IPS) - Australia's perceived new regional role has come under attack from neighbouring countries and the nation's defence analysts, a week after the deployment of an Australia-led multinational peacekeeping force to East Timor.

Prime Minister John Howard's so-called doctrine which would see Australia becoming the US's deputy in Asia is coming under criticism by South-east Asian leaders who branded it racist and a threat to regional ties.

Last Monday, 2,500 soldiers most of them Australian were on the ground in East Timor joined by British Gurkha, Portuguese, New Zealand, Thai, Filipino and French troops. A further 5,000 troops are planned to be deployed within the coming weeks.

The main staging ground for the International Forces for East Timor (Interfet) is Darwin, the northern Australian city about 500 km from East Timor.

In an interview with 'The Bulletin' weekly, which was circulated widely in South-east Asia, Howard said Australia's foreign and security policies are to be recast.

Calling it the Howard doctrine, the prime minister said Australia had a responsibility within its region to do things above and beyond, bringing into play its unique characteristics as a Western country in Asia but with strong links to North America.

We are defending the values we hold as Australians. We were willing to be in dispute with our nearest neighbour (Indonesia), to defend those values. And were able to build our associations with nations outside of Asia in the course of that, Howard told The Bulletin.

A spokesman for Howard told 'The Weekend Australian' that the prime minister did not actually use the word 'deputy' in the interview, but did not reject or correct the word when it was used by 'The Bulletin' journalist.

However, Malaysia's Deputy Home Minister Azmi Khalid said Australia should not assume it had a larger role in the region just because it was leading Interfet.

We are actually fed up with their stance -- that they are sitting in a white chair and supervising the coloured chairs, he said.

Malaysian opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said Howard had done more than any previous Australian prime minister to damage Australia's relations with Asia since the White Australia immigration policy was abolished in the 1960s.

Initially, Malaysia ruled out joining the Australian-led force but changed its mind after Indonesia's persuasion. It has sent a team of 30 military officers and it expected to deploy a larger force during the next phase of peacekeeping operations.

Adding to the confusion was a report, last Friday, quoting a senior Thai Defence Ministry official saying Thailand was alarmed by television pictures showing Australian soldiers pointing guns at the heads of Indonesian army-supported militia suspects in East Timor.

The source of the story, who did not want to be identified, said Thai troops planned to take a more softly-softly approach.

We are not going to point guns at the heads of people like we have been seeing Australian soldiers doing on television, he said. That doesn't look good -- it's terrible.

The criticism from Thailand, which Australia named as deputy commander of Interfet, is a fresh headache for Maj General Peter Cosgrove, the force commander.

On Sept 15, the UN Security Council endorsed all necessary measures to halt the orgy of killing and destruction in the former Portuguese colony by pro-Jakarta and anti-independence militias after the East Timorese people voted for independence in the Aug 30 UN-supervised ballot.

Adding to Australia's woes was Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan's comments in New York, on Friday, expressing strong concerns over the country's participation in Interfet.

We certainly respond to the call of the international community, of the UN Security Council, and of Indonesia because we are in the region, because we are part of the family, as (Indonesian) President Habibie said, Surin said in an interview with the 'New York Times'.

But the parameters must be clear -- political parameter, division of responsibility, time frame, the expense. All these have to be defined as soon as possible, he explained.

Australia's key defence analysts also rejected Australia's new position in the Howard Doctrine.

Bob Lowry, a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Studies Centre, in Canberra, described the Howard Doctrine as just laughable. He said: This whole concept of being 'deputy' is going back even before forward defence. We've got to get back to regional partnership in defence. And partnership means equality.

Australian National University security expert Alan Dupont agrees with Lowry: This deputy sheriff notion is absolute nonsense. It would be totally counter-productive, it sends all the wrong signals to the region and reinforces the idea that we are just proxies of the United States.

But Richard Tanter, professor of international relations at Japan's Kyoto Seika University, hit out at the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) for not doing enough.

Without doubt East Timor represents the latest -- but by no means the last -- failure of ASEAN regional security arrangements, he said.

Despite its membership of 22 nations, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has made no contribution to solving the East Timor conflict in the past, and has little to offer now, Tanter pointed out.

Unlike the more sophisticated and tested Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), ARF has made no attempt to deal with member states that violate basic international standards of human rights, he added.

Moreover, said Tanter, ARF has no effective crisis procedures. Only neighbouring Australia and the United States have the capacity and interest to engage in go-it-alone peacekeeping operations in East Timor.

The hard fact is that final responsibility for the present crisis resides in Washington and Tokyo, said Tanter.

Japan, whose laws prohibit the government from sending defense troops to UN peacekeeping forces, has already pledged to make the monetary contributions to the multinational security force in East Timor.