by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Editorial: Managing AustraliaÂ’s interests in S.E. Asia
, July 15, 2000
â€” Peter Westmore is National President of the National Civic Council
Almost exactly 50 years ago, the Korean War broke out, plunging East-West relations into their deepest crisis since the end of World War II, and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.
There are disturbing parallels between the paralysis of US policy in the lead-up to the Korean War and the vacillations in Australian foreign policy in response to the collapse in stability in the â€śinner rimâ€ť of Australiaâ€™s neighbours, from Fiji and the Solomon Islands in the north-east, to East Timor and Indonesia.
The lesson of the Korean War, as former US Naval Secretary, John Lehman, argued recently, is that the US Government sent all the wrong signals to the Soviet Union, Communist China and North Korea â€” contributing to their decision to invade South Korea at the end of June, 1950.
In June 1949, all US combat troops were withdrawn from South Korea, as part of a general cutback in US defence spending.
In January 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a prepared statement on American defence strategy, omitted South Korea from the US defence perimeter in Asia, and in May 1950, explicitly confirmed that view in hearings before the US Senate.
Six weeks later, hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened North Korean troops invaded the south, plunging the Korean peninsula into a war which lasted three agonising years, and cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, before ending in a stalemate which has still not been resolved.
Australiaâ€™s policy indecision in the Pacific Islands in some ways parallels Americaâ€™s before the Korean War.
For over a month, a group of armed thugs have held the former Government of Fiji hostage, while on the nearby Solomon Islands, the Governor-General and Prime Minister were taken hostage by armed men, after Australia turned down desperate pleas to station peacekeepers on the main island, Guadalcanal.
While Australia can do little in Fiji and the Solomons after the event, it is alarming that the Howard Government has signalled that it has no strategy to avert such crises in the future.
If the Foreign Affairs department has its way, Australiaâ€™s response will be limited to reactive diplomacy â€” which has failed in the recent past.
Events in Fiji and the Solomons offer a clear warning that different policies are needed today, particularly in relation to East Timor and Papua New Guinea which, despite its vast natural resources, is sinking under the weight of widespread corruption and growing lawlessness.
Indonesia represents a different challenge for Australia.
Since the forced resignation of President Suharto in the wake of the Asian currency meltdown, two different policies have been pursued in relation to Australia.
In 1999, East Timor became a major irritant in Australiaâ€™s relations with Indonesia, and following the recent Peopleâ€™s Congress in West Papua (Irian Jaya), convened with official Indonesian Government support, West Papuan representatives voted nearly unanimously in favour of independence.
This result was entirely predictable, in view of the abuses of power perpetrated by the military in West Papua over many years, and the transmigration policy which has brought out deep racial divisions between the indigenous Papuans and people from other islands, notably Java.
The fact that the Indonesian Government in Jakarta was surprised by the vote shows how out of touch that government is with reality.
To blame Australia for the vote â€” as some Indonesian government officials and media have done â€” is a further sign of the same thing.
Now that the people of West Papua have been given a taste of self-determination, the Indonesian Government will have real difficulty putting the genie back in the bottle.
East Timor presents a particular problem for Australia, which put up $20 million towards the cost of the UN-sponsored referendum on independence last August, and since then, has contributed over $1 billion towards the military force needed to conduct the UN peace-keeping operation after the militia rampage last September.
By the end of next year, the amount will be over $2 billion.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) wants Australia to have no military presence in Indonesia after the current UN mission is withdrawn.
But unless Australia, and other nations, position ground forces in East Timor at that time, it is inevitable that militia violence, launched from safe havens in Indonesian Timor, will escalate, and that the former guerilla army of Falantil, linked to the Fretilin group which seized power in 1975, will attempt to capture control of the territory by force or by law.
If DFAT gets its way, the huge Australian investment in a peaceful transition in East Timor will collapse, and as much as $2,000 million will have been literally thrown away.
DFATâ€™s policy of disengagement would become a self-fulfilling nightmare.
Too much money and effort has already been expended in East Timor, with good results, to let that happen now.
The alternative to the DFAT line is one of actively building a stabilising presence â€” diplomatic, economic and military â€” in any country in the region which offers Australia facilities.
As in East Timor, units of the Australian Defence Force could be engaged in civil construction, including road-building, the provision of health clinics and other medical services and communications.
Armed personnel could be deployed in sufficient numbers to protect those engaged in civil aid programs and, one hopes, to deter would-be dictators like George Speight and Andrew Nori in the Solomons.
This policy cannot be dismissed with the assertion that Australia should not become the policeman â€” still less, the sheriffâ€™s deputy â€” in the region.
It is necessarily designed to provide a stabilising presence in neighbouring countries threatened with political breakdown.
Unlike in the Cold War period, Australia does not have enemies in the South-East Asian region â€” but it does have clear interests.
Unless those interests are properly defined and managed then we will have failed to learn the lessons of Korea 50 years ago.