Australia's mirror after E. Timor

An eager peacekeeper at first, Australia looks at its role in Asia

When Australia led a multinational force into East Timor last month it was hailed as a diplomatic coup for a country that has long been seeking to raise its profile. After years of playing an adjunct role in Asia, Australia was leading the efforts to solve one of its worst humanitarian crises in recent memory.

But just a month and several skirmishes later (including one last weekend that Indonesian officials say resulted in the death of one Indonesian policeman), the costs of a higher profile are rising. And Australia is quietly mounting a campaign with the United Nations to accelerate a transition to a UN blue-helmet peacekeeping operation in East Timor.

"It is certainly the view of the Australian government that we would like to see the move to the fully fledged United Nations peacekeeping operation as soon as possible," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said last week.

Australia now has about 4,000 troops in East Timor. One UN plan calls for a three-year peacekeeping force of 9,000 - only 2,000 of them would be Australian. And there is talk of transferring control of the forces to an Asian country, such as Thailand or Malaysia.

It's no wonder Australia wants to scale back its involvement. Relations with Jakarta were at an all-time low even before the firefight Sunday near the poorly demarcated border with the Indonesian province of West Timor that ended with confusion over whether it was Indonesian or Australian soldiers who were on the wrong side. In Dili, a spokesman for the international force said yesterday there were no deaths on either side.

In recent weeks, the Australian embassy in Jakarta has been shot at, the Australian international school in the Indonesian capital has had Molotov cocktails thrown at it, and there are reports that Australian tourists in Bali have been threatened.

Many of Australia's other friendships in Asia are also feeling the strain, with some Asian leaders critical of Australia for being too aggressive in handling the East Timor issue. Prime Minister John Howard drew recriminations from pundits and leaders across Asia when he said in an interview last month that Australia was prepared to act as a peacekeeping "deputy" in Asia for the US.

At home, Mr. Howard's approval ratings are at their highest in three years. But Australia's foray into East Timor has also brought about a sometimes acrimonious domestic debate. The argument from some is that Howard had more to do with bringing about the crisis than he will admit. Months before an Aug. 30 referendum there that resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence, Howard was claiming credit for penning a letter to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie suggesting he offer the former Portuguese colony autonomy within Indonesia.

Mr. Habibie surprised almost everyone by going a step further and saying he was prepared to offer the East Timorese a chance to vote for full independence. That resulted in a UN-brokered agreement clearing the way for the referendum and, many say, the rampage by pro-Jakarta militias backed by elements of Indonesia's military.

Addressing reporters in Australia on Monday as he wrapped up a recent trip to lobby world leaders, the man likely to be the first leader of an independent East Timor, Xanana Gusmo, said the price for independence was one he and his countrymen had been willing to pay.

"We accepted the risk at the beginning of our struggle, knowing that we fought alone against the indifference of the international community, against economic interests, against everybody," Mr. Gusmo said.

Both Howard and Mr. Downer have rejected the idea that anything could have been done to reduce that price. Indonesia, they argue, would never have accepted a UN peacekeeping force on the ground before the August referendum. But the voices against them have grown louder in recent weeks.

"There are two issues in Timor," Howard's predecessor, Paul Keating, said last week, "cause and effect. The fact is the peacekeepers should have been there months ago. That's the effect. The cause is Howard's letter to Habibie in February this year."

It's not hard to find foreign policy experts who think Howard should have foreseen the carnage in East Timor that followed the referendum, especially when the leaders of militias were vocal about their plans should the vote be for independence.

The debate also comes at a time when Australia is considering its identity on another level. Australians face their own vote Nov. 6 over whether to abandon Britain's queen as their head of state and become a republic. That discussion is almost as old as Australia but has been overshadowed so far by the Timor crisis and another old debate - just what Australia's place is in Asia.

According to writer Nicolas Jose, a novelist who was Canberra's cultural attache to Beijing from 1987 until 1990, Australia is still trying to find its place in Asia almost 30 years after the White Australia policy (which kept many Asian immigrants out) was mothballed.

The debate was resurrected by the recent emergence of the far right and the economic crisis, which saw many of Australia's top trading partners go broke, Mr. Jose says.

But it has been amplified by the recent crisis in East Timor. "There is a still a great uncertainty about all this," Jose says. "There's a degree of hysteria that is still very easily whipped up about the coastline being swamped with illegal immigrants from Asia."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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