Sep 23, 2020 Last Updated 7:31 AM, Sep 18, 2020

No longer so 'special'

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Keating's 'special' relationship with Jakarta was undemocratic. After East Timor, Howard is right not to rush back.

Scott Burchill

In the first weeks of September last year, 70% of all public buildings and private residences in East Timor were destroyed. TNI and their militia surrogates displaced at least 75% of the population. Between 500 and 2000 East Timorese were slaughtered.

These statistics measure the denouement of 25 years of Indonesian state terror in occupied East Timor. They also indicate the scale of Canberra's greatest foreign policy failure since federation. At the very least, one might think that these grim statistics would prompt Australia's foreign policy elite and its adjunct the Jakarta lobby - to rethink an approach to diplomacy with Indonesia which has been so conspicuously discredited. Incredibly, this hasn't happened. Instead, those wanting a rapid return to business as usual with Jakarta are attempting to blame the Howard government for the collapse of the relationship.

Within a month of Interfet's deployment in East Timor, which finally brought the killings to an end, the editor of The Australian believed it was time for Canberra 'to withdraw from the military leadership role' in East Timor, because 'an ongoing military presence by Australia could hinder the peace process by continuing to antagonise militia groups'. Fortunately for the people of East Timor, his request was ignored.

The foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, was also keen to 'make up' with Jakarta as soon as possible. Reflecting his employer's distaste for foreign policy driven by 'humanitarian and moralistic concerns' (Rupert Murdoch), Sheridan believed that the cause of the problem was Mr Howard's regrettable habit of listening to the views of his constituents: 'The government's worst statement was the prime minister saying in parliament recently that he wanted foreign policy to be in step with public opinion'.

Veteran Indonesia analyst Bruce Grant also identified Mr Howard as the problem. According to Grant, the prime minister is seen as 'unsympathetic to cultures and aspirations other than his own', a character trait that apparently puts him sharply at odds with leaders in Beijing, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. Howard is 'suspect' in Asia because he is a monarchist, lacks 'an emotional commitment to the fortunes of the region', and loves cricket 'which does not help in Indonesia'. Grant doesn't explain the perils inherent in Indonesia's bilateral relations with other cricket-playing nations such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, nor does he note the damage done to ties with Kuala Lumpur when Malaysia hosted a cricket tournament during the last Commonwealth Games.

Cultural deference is clearly Grant's recommended strategy for engaging with Asia. The onus is on Australia, and only Australia, to change its ways. There is no suggestion of reciprocity from the region, even in the light of last year's horror in East Timor.

According to ANU Indonesia specialist Harold Crouch, Mr Howard's response to the terror in East Timor last year, rather than the slaughter itself, 'was offensive to many Indonesians'. The prime minister has a limited cultural understanding of Australia's great northern neighbour and 'doesn't quite know how to convey things to Indonesians', he says - true enough as messages such as 'stop the killing' clearly fell on deaf ears in Jakarta last September.


Former diplomat Tony Kevin also worried about Australia's 'provocative' behaviour last year. 'Indonesian military and strategic elites will not quickly forgive or forget how Australian foreign policy cynically exploited their weak interim president in order to manoeuvre Indonesia into a no-win situation', says Kevin. If only John Howard stopped basking in 'jingoistic self-satisfaction over East Timor' and said sorry, bridges with Indonesia could be mended.

More recently, professional Asianists have sought to engender a moral panic about the current state of Australia's relationships with the region by claiming that John Howard's intervention in East Timor is indicative of a broader rejection of regional engagement. What they really mean is that Howard is ignoring the specific rules of engagement that they have drafted for successive Australian governments. Even more disturbing, the coalition isn't seeking their wise counsel.

According to his critics, Howard has disengaged Australia from the region, repudiating 'the Australia project in Asia' (Stephen Fitzgerald), painstakingly nurtured by every Australian prime minister since Whitlam. Emblematic of this has been the collapse of bilateral ties with Jakarta: 'Forty years of bipartisan effort to build up a relationship with Indonesia have been seriously eroded by recent events', argues Richard Woolcott, without detailing these 'events' or specifying the responsibility Jakarta bears for the downturn. 'The relationship has been destroyed?. Indonesians feel betrayed by Australia', laments Rawdon Dalrymple, who already looks back at the Suharto years with a nostalgia unlikely to be shared by the victims of the dictatorship: 'I fear we shall not see the like of him [Suharto] again'.

According to leading Sinologist Stephen Fitzgerald, 'in the game of self-identifying regions' Australia must 'commit to and find acceptance in Asia'. Our 'fundamental problem is that while we may have come to mouth the sentiment of belonging to the region, we have done too little to belong in human terms or to make the necessary cultural and intellectual adjustment'.

Under the old orthodoxy, Asia was seen as an exclusive club which Canberra must seek to join being left out would be 'a disaster for Australia'. Our need for belonging, however, brings with it obligations of membership which require us to alter our ethical and cultural outlook. The price of admission to the Asia club is never explicitly conceded, but by implication it includes the sublimation of our European political heritage, a less assertive commitment to universal human rights, and a greater sense of cultural deference to Asian sensitivities.

But does Asia see itself this way, as a club? If not, should we?

An alternative explanation for recent policy changes is that the Howard government is reflecting a popular unease with the rules of Asian engagement previously set by Australia's foreign policy elite though not the need for engagement per se. This discomfort dovetails with the prime minister's personal ambivalence about Asia, which is partly based on ignorance and partly on an exaggerated sense of the importance of cultural differences in international politics.

Howard believes that the Keating government's style of Asian engagement was elitist and lacking in domestic popular support, hence it was ultimately driven underground. In 1995 both the intention to negotiate and the content of the Australia-Indonesia security agreement was withheld from the public until after it was signed an unusual departure from the concept of 'due process'. Howard is perhaps understating the need for government leadership in this area of public policy, but he has correctly identified a widening cleavage between elite and popular perceptions of how Australia should present itself to the region.

Many Australians believe they can be equal partners in Asia without sacrificing their political or cultural identity: they merely ask to be accepted at face value. Differences between nations and cultures can be respected, they don't need to be resolved or dissolved. Convergence is unnecessary. Economic ties prompted by globalising forces, for example, are rarely dependent on shared values. Australia's most important bilateral trade relationship with Japan was formed at a time when anti-Japanese feelings in Australia were still potent from the Second World War. Many Australians would feel they have little to learn from the legal and political processes in most East Asian societies.

New orthodoxy

The outlines of a new orthodoxy about events in East Timor last year are becoming clear, at least as far as the Jakarta lobby is concerned. It's a strategic mix of inverted history and national self-flagellation.

Despite the absence of any alternative regional responses to the slaughter, Canberra 'took too much ownership of the process' (Greg Sheridan), meaning the East Timorese should have been left to their awful fate. Indonesia has nothing to be sorry about and no reparations to pay. The Howard government, on the other hand, was 'meddling' (Richard Woolcott) in Indonesia's internal affairs, and has been engaged in 'gratuitous displays of jingoism' (Peter Hartcher), as well as 'triumphalism', 'neo-colonialism' and 'latent racism' (Richard Woolcott).

According to this re-writing of history, Howard is primarily to blame for the cooling of the bilateral relationship between Canberra and Jakarta because he abandoned his predecessor's 'special relationship' with Indonesia and is personally uncomfortable with regional engagement.

An alternative view is that the Howard Government has deliberately distanced itself from what it regards as the supine posture of its predecessor because it believes the public disliked the morally dubious relationship struck between the Keating government and the New Order regime specifically, and what it saw as an 'over-accommodation with Asia' more generally. When Canberra cashed the bilateral cheque last September it bounced, despite claims about the 'ballast' which Gareth Evans and Paul Keating allegedly infused into the relationship.

For the Jakarta lobby, the bilateral relationship is refracted through the personalities of Howard and Wahid. Leaders' summits are more important than building democratic institutions. According to former diplomat Duncan Campbell, the lobby is 'making a ritual study of the entrails of Wahid's spasmodic performance divining how Javanese, and how much of an expression of Asian values it all is'. This is simply replacing the Suharto cult with the Wahid cult, a strategy which promises to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Howard, however, is unimpressed with Wahid's unpredictable and erratic performance, and is unsure that he yet commands support across the spectrum of Javanese elite opinion. The prime minister sees no need for an urgent restoration of good relations and is prepared to wait to deal with Jakarta on his terms. In the meantime he would be well advised to offer tangible support to those nascent democratic institutions which will embed a more liberal political and civic culture in Indonesia. This is much more important than the atmospherics of leaders' meetings.

Scott Burchill ( teaches international relations at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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