[Nasional-e] Relax, Australia's not invading any

Ambon nasional-e@polarhome.com
Tue Dec 10 23:24:11 2002


Relax, Australia's not invading anyone
Special to The Japan Times

SYDNEY -- To hear some Southeast Asian leaders sound off lately, a casual
observer might suspect Australia is about to invade Indonesia or Malaysia or
even the Philippines. Such is the folly of listening to "news" as whipped up
by audience-boosting television channels fed by headline-grabbing

Admittedly, this is the silly season when the media grab wildly for "hard
news" while their usual sources are relaxing into end-of-year parties.
Silly? It doesn't come much sillier when Southeast Asia and Australia start
trading insults over pre-emptive military strikes and who is harboring the
most terrorists.

That said, Australian Prime Minister John Howard must be feeling an urgent
need for a yearend break. Our ever-so-correct leader has put foot in mouth
and, worse to his critics, appears to have no intention of withdrawing it.

What began as a benign Sunday morning chat on television between Howard and
veteran Canberra interviewer Laurie Oakes was turned into an international
incident. The wily prime minister should have remembered that any casual
remark he makes during these tense times about Iraq and al-Qaeda is capable
of being turned into an official statement of Australia's stance on revising
the United Nations charter.

What he said in reply to Oakes' question was quite equivocal, full of "ifs":
"If you believed somebody was going to launch an attack against your
country, either of a conventional kind or of a terrorist kind, and you had
the capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that
capacity, then you would have to use it."

Suddenly all hell broke loose. The media in Southeast Asia picked up the
quotation and ran it as a declaration of unilateral intent.

"We will hold this as an attempt to wage war against the government and the
country if Australia pursues its intention to attack any country to tackle
terrorism," declared Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. "We will
take action according to our country's laws."

Canberra is quite accustomed to outbursts from the perennial Malaysian
leader. Over the years his throwaway remarks at press conferences about
perceived Australian sins get the usual response: With friends like
Mahathir, who needs enemies? Even former Prime Minister Paul Keating dubbed
him "recalcitrant," Canberra has come to expect a regular vocal rap on the
knuckles from its friend in Kuala Lumpur.

But Jakarta is another matter. Ever since Australia's lead in the East Timor
breakaway, and more particularly since the Bali bombing followed by a hunt
for Indonesian terrorists, relations with Jakarta have been sensitive.

So when Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto warned that his
forces would respond accordingly if Australia invaded Indonesian territory
under the pretext of fighting terrorism, Australian diplomats held their
collective breath. "We will not stand by should they attack," the general
announced after attending a Cabinet meeting with President Megawati
Sukarnoputri. "There is no way Australia can come here and launch an attack
even if they say it is against terrorists."

The thought of Australia with a population of 20 million even considering an
attack on Indonesia's 220-plus million people is ridiculous. But one doesn't
say such a thing, at least in Canberra. Not when you're waiting for the next
blast from some offended xenophobic country. Sure enough, it came.

>From Manila, Sen. Ralph Recto let fly: "Howard is not a Crocodile Dundee who
can treat the whole of Asia as an extension of the Australian outback. No
country will ever issue a hunting permit to Australian forces. Asia is not a
place where Howard can go on a safari."

Singapore's blast was muted at government level. But The Straits Times, the
government-controlled daily newspaper, could not resist lecturing: "When a
country announces its willingness to launch an action against targets in a
friendly nation, with no warning given to or permission sought from the
other government, it should expect to face a barrage of criticism."

Maybe Australia should accept all this criticism as some perverted form of
compliment. Rarely do our regional neighbors bother to shower our dazed
heads with such verbal fireworks. Now we appreciate how Washington must feel

Back home, Howard remains unrepentant. His unguarded venture into the
supersensitive politics of Southeast Asia has to be measured against such
local humdrum issues as the worst national drought in 100 years and bush
fires burning dozens of house in his hometown of Sydney.

Stung by the Howard calm, opposition leader Simon Crean, sinking to a new
low in voter popularity and desperate for a headline, could not resist.
"Howard has the responsibility to apologize, to ring directly the heads of
government of those countries, and to clarify that he has no intention of
supporting pre-emptive strikes against them," he told Parliament.

But Howard, always adept in reading the public mood, explained: "I was
asserting a position any Australian would want their prime minister to

That provoked chants from Malaysia's rent-a-crowd protesters outside the
Australian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and a taunt from the Malaysian Foreign
Ministry spokesman: "Howard's failure to back down is yet another example of
his arrogance."

The brouhaha also comes at an unfortunate time domestically as well as
regionally. Australians are still smarting over the death of 90 holidaying
countrymen in the Bali bombing carried out by an Indonesian group of Islamic
extremists. They still recall the help Indonesians gave Middle Eastern
"refugees" to enter this country illegally. Anger among older Australians
against newly revealed Islamic extremists and their terrorist cells here
grows daily.

That mood and his resolve to root out any domestic terrorist threat still
exercises Howard in his response to criticism from largely Muslim countries.
And he is well aware that this vast open country with its very open
democratic system must live for a long time with neighbors "up there."

What Howard was getting at -- and what Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has
been hurriedly explaining to the neighbors -- is that Australia is still
considering supporting changes to United Nations regulations allowing
nations to launch pre-emptive strikes against terrorists on foreign soil.
What he did not make clear is the priority of first seeking regional and
government-to-government cooperation.

This is what the local press has been hammering in its criticism of the
"Howard gaffe." "Any suggestion of arrogance on Australia's part, such as a
perceived disrespect for sovereignty, or the assumption Canberra is peddling
Washington's strategic priorities in Southeast Asia, could further fan
anti-Western sentiment," warned the Sydney Morning Herald. "Cooperation with
regional governments must be Australia's first priority on confronting the
terrorist threat."

However, that necessity is being balanced in the public mind by reports that
Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian terrorist group, was thwarted from its
plans to attack the Sydney Olympic Games two years ago. The reports, since
confirmed by local security experts, surfaced in The Straits Times.

Jemaah Islamiyah, known as JI, now appears to have been set up here in 1996
as Mantiqi (district) 4, covering Australia and Indonesia's Irian Jaya
province, sometimes called West Papua. Its members include Indonesian
permanent residents here and white Australians. A frequent visitor here has
been Abu Bakar Bashir, the Muslim cleric and JI spiritual leader arrested by
Jakarta as a suspected terrorist. Another was Hambali, a cleric and member
of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Against this unfurling background, Howard is playing the continuing
controversy close to his chest. What he is getting in response is criticism
from home and abroad. But as any leader worth the title knows, that goes
with the territory.

Alan Goodall is former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian.

The Japan Times: Dec. 11, 2002
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