The fastest gaffes in the West

Aug 26, 2021

Australians who reckon we’re recognised as an independent player on the world stage haven’t had to confront the neighbours’ scepticism.  Apart from the Union Jack on the flag and the Queen’s likeness on our coinage, there’s also the matter of our US badge.

Our law enforcement commission happened this way: In December 1998 John Howard wrote to Indonesian President BJ Habibie suggesting his government start negotiating with East Timorese leaders calling for self-determination. The PM anticipated a prolonged process, maybe resulting in the grant of some special autonomy.

Instead, and to widespread surprise, Habibie announced a referendum. In August 1999 the East Timorese voted 78.5 per cent for independence.

Violence followed with Australia carrying most of the peacekeeping burden. INTERFET (International Force East Timor) led by Australia contributed over 5,500 men and women. After killing and torching homes, schools and clinics, the Indonesians withdrew at the end of October.

We saw our involvement as noble.  Indonesians reckoned we were US agents with another agenda. Sadly we’ve aggravated the distrust.

The late Australian scholar Jamie Mackie commented: ‘Australia came in for the blame and much criticism as the party mainly responsible for Indonesia’s sudden, humiliating loss of East Timor. Wildly distorted though many Indonesian accounts of what happened there in 1999 have been, the effect was to generate deeper resentment towards us across many segments of Indonesian society than at any time since 1945.’

Although an estimated 1,400 civilians died and thousands fled to West Timor the situation could have been much worse. The Indonesians had been shamed and were deeply angry.  It was not a time for triumphalism, but the PM could not resist.

‘In the excitement following the East Timor intervention, John Howard allowed Australia to be labelled America’s regional deputy sheriff’, wrote La Trobe Emeritus Professor Robert Manne.

‘So enthusiastic was his government about Washington’s new doctrine of the ‘pre-emptive strike’, that the PM even applied it – clumsily, purposelessly and at considerable diplomatic cost – to a hypothetical presence somewhere in Southeast Asia of an anti-Australian terrorist cell.’

After the bombing of the Jakarta Embassy in 2004, Professor Greg Fealy at the Australian National University reportedly said: ‘The Howard government remains one of the most unpopular foreign governments in Indonesia. The two countries certainly work together as neighbours, but it’s pragmatic. There’s no warmth in the relationship.’

Years after the referendum and the departure of Howard from Parliament the suspicions that we wear the Capitol Hill star and Stetson lingers at all levels of Indonesian society.

‘Don’t say you’re Australian,’ warned our Surabaya landlord, a senior bureaucrat heading a sector dealing with  Australia when paying a courtesy call to the Rukun Tetangga, head of the local community group. ‘I’ll tell him you’re from New Zealand.  No-one thinks badly about that country.’

That was in 2013 and the issue which drove his caution was former PM Julia Gillard alongside  President Barack Obama announcing that up to 2,500 US Marines would be stationed in Darwin.

Jakarta alleged it hadn’t been consulted so a storm of suspicion followed, with assertions a US plot to invade the archipelago would be launched from the Top End.  Indonesia’s then foreign minister, the ANU-educated Marty Natalegawa, reportedly said the Darwin deal would generate a ‘vicious circle of tension and mistrust.’ The Jakarta Post opined the US troops were ‘simply too close for comfort.’

Concerns were flicked aside and the base expanded. This year more than $500 million will be spent upgrading four northern facilities for bigger training exercises involving local and US forces.

The ruling group in Indonesia are the Javanese, famous for radiating bonhomie while brooding for generations over real or imagined slurs.  Most Australians have probably forgotten their nation’s role in the East Timor referendum but Indonesians have not.  They see it as another Western attempt to fracture the ‘unitary state’ with the US as the dalang, jerking the stick limbs of the shadow puppets Down Under.

Yet in 1999 when Australia needed muscle for the East Timor crisis the US was literally out of sight with a cruiser stationed over the horizon. US President Bill Clinton said his nation would ‘contribute to the (peacekeeping) force in a limited, but essential, way’.

About 200 Americans were eventually deployed.  That seems to shoot down the rumour that Washington was choreographing the show, though there’s no limit to conspiracy theories.

In the past, there was a clear separation of Australian and US policies on Indonesia.

During the 1945-49 revolutionary war of independence, Australian trade unionists challenged the pro-Dutch policies of the Menzies government and actively helped the revolutionaries by black-banning supplies for the colonialists.   Australian diplomats successfully pressured The Hague to withdraw its military and abandon hopes of recovering its colony.

However, the US saw an independent Indonesia under the nationalist left-leaning Soekarno as a threat to its determination to stop communism usurping capitalism so tried for a regime change.

In 1957 an Indian newspaper headlined an ‘American plot to overthrow Soekarno’. The failed coup revealed the differences in Western policies towards Indonesia:  US analysis is driven by ideology, Australia by proximity.  Washington is 16,400 km from Jakarta and in a different hemisphere.  Darwin is just 825 km from Kupang in Flores, and even closer to some outlying islands.

The insensitivities continue adding to the suspicions. In October 2018 Scott Morrison suggested the Australian embassy in Israel might follow the US and move to Jerusalem.

The idea was to boost the Wentworth election chances of Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel.  Maybe smart domestic politics, but a dud in Jakarta.

FM Retno Marsudi hit out: ‘Indonesia conveys our strong concern on the announcement and questions the merit of the announcement.’ There were claims that a free trade deal between Australia might be cancelled.  Eventually, the shift was shelved.

The gaffes go on. This month the ABC reported FM Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton plan travel to the US, India and Indonesia for ‘meetings with their counterparts.’  No info on agendas or who else is on the plane, all fuelling Indonesian intrigues.

Are the ministers visiting Washington first to get instructions on handling Indonesia?  Are they couriers delivering US policy as their own?  If the archipelago is as important as the rhetoric runs, then it deserves a dedicated visit, not just a pop-in on the return trip should time allow.  As seasoned foreign observers and psychologists like to say, perception is the true reality.

This is how sceptics sell the story: Australia, at the behest of the US, is planning to ‘balkanise’ the Unitary State and plunder its resources.  To Australians this is loony talk, but to our paranoid neighbour the dots connect.

Earlier this year Nine News reported Canberra was talking to Washington about stockpiling weapons and munitions at bases in the NT, including US-designed ballistic missiles.  The type and range has not been disclosed and the obvious target in Australian eyes would be a Chinese invasion force

Though not to those Indonesians who remember the Menzies government buying the US F-111  fighter-bomber because it had the range to offload over Jakarta and return.  The deal was done in 1963 when President Soekarno was prosecuting his Konfrontasi policy against Malaysia.

By the time the planes were delivered in 1973, the new President Soeharto was friendly to the West and the emergency was over.

The former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad has never been a fan of Australia. Paul Keating labelled him ‘recalcitrant’ and John Howard damned a comment as ‘offensive anti-Semitism.’

But other quotes are worth considering if the arrogance can be set aside: ‘Australia liked to be an appendage of the US and if that is what it wants, then so be it.

‘You can’t simply decide to be Asian. You must have an Asian culture. This means, for a start, changing your attitude and improving your manners.’

Australian academics, traders and long-tooth diplomats know more about Indonesia and how to gather intelligence, handle the protocols and sensitivities through decades of personal contact and research than probably any other country.  This puts Canberra in a prime position to drive an independent policy separate from Washington and which might eventually erase the gunslinger image.

Mackie has the final word: ‘If a new Cold War develops between China and the US, backed by its allies, Japan and Australia, the role played by Indonesia and the other ASEAN countries may be crucial for us …  if our policies diverge too radically, we could find ourselves facing serious difficulties’.

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