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Tuesday, September 28, 1999 Published at 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Asia's angst over Timor intervention

Asian nations are concerned about perceived Australian aggression

By regional analyst Kate Liang

As the Australian-led international peace keeping force moves to secure more of East Timor, continuing disquiet has been expressed by other Asian countries over what is seen as Australia's newly aggressive foreign policy stance.

East Timor
East Asian countries do have a role in the intervention force - Thailand and the Philippines have the biggest contingents - but the intervention in Timor sits uneasily with the long-cherished Asian principle of non-interference in one another's affairs.

It also brings into focus Australia's own ambivalent position inside Asia. It has not yet been able to answer satisfactorily for itself the question of whether it is, or is not, part of the region.

The most recent criticisms have been voiced by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has long been suspicious of Western motives in Asia.

He accused Western powers of cynically staging the referendum on Timorese independence too early, and suggested that Timor had much to gain from remaining part of Indonesia.

Shock and revulsion

Not all Asian countries have been so outspoken. The violence which followed the referendum caused shock and revulsion within Asia, as well as outside. But a sense of uneasiness remains.

Remarks by Australia's Prime Minister John Howard that he saw his country's role as a kind of regional policeman, second to the United States, prompted the latest sparks of anger.

Mr Howard later said his comments were misinterpreted, but there is no doubt that many Asians quietly view Australia's more assertive stance in the region as aggressive and bullying.

Within the intervention force, the Asian contingents have criticised Australian troops for being too forceful in their methods.

Regional sensitivities

It is likely that regional sensitivities will be dealt with by giving the Asian forces responsibility for the safer, eastern part of Timor, so that there is less likelihood of an awkward confrontation with pro-Indonesian militias.

Anger at Australia has been most marked, of course, within Indonesia itself, where Australian flags have been burned and the Australian Embassy attacked.

Australia's ambassador to Jakarta has accused the Indonesian media of a deliberate disinformation campaign, in which Australian troops have been accused of atrocities in Timor, and portrayed as bullies.

The anti-Australian rhetoric took a more concrete turn with the rejection of a 1995 security agreement by Jakarta, and a threatened boycott of Australian imports.

Limits on action

But more serious steps have not yet been taken. Australian mining interests in Indonesia have been guaranteed. Australia's trade with Indonesia is worth more than a billion dollars, and it is in Indonesia's favour.

It seems there are limits to how far Indonesia, still suffering from a terrible economic crisis, is willing to let angry rhetoric translate into action.

There is an irony in the fact that, in Australia itself, John Howard's assertive reaction to the Timor crisis seems to have enhanced his popularity, according to opinion polls.

The negative effect on Australia's relations with its neighbours seems to be a price which, for the moment, many Australians regard as worth paying.

But in the long term the question of Australia's ambivalent attitude towards the region in which, geographically at least, it finds itself, remains unanswered.

For a long time Australia's anxieties towards the huge and potentially unstable country on its doorstep dictated a conciliatory policy towards Indonesia. Australia was one of the few countries which recognised the annexation of Timor.

Now that the Australians seems less willing to do things the (non-interventionist) Asian way, it may be some time before it can carve a role for itself which both it, and its neighbours, are satisfied with.

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