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Habibe And APEC: What Would Be Significant Enough?

Hysterical responses to Indonesian President Habibe’s decision not to come to APEC are likely. He will be accused of staying away because he is a coward, he will be accused of staying away because he does not wish to face his accusers.

In fact his decision to stay in Jakarta is hardly surprising. And he is neither of the above. He is, in short, a man in a jam. And rather than a torrent of abuse and rhetoric he needs our help – not our condemnation.

Firstly President Habibe is obviously facing two serious crises, a military one in East Timor and a political one in Jakarta.

Secondly, if you put yourself in President Habibe’s shoes, what would be achieved by coming to APEC?

While away he would have to turn his back on his enemies at home for what an acute diplomat described to Scoop yesterday as a “rebuke from the Anglo-Saxon club”.

It is equally unsurprising that Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alitas has no desire to sit around a table with Robin Cook (UK), Alexander Downer (Australia) , Madeleine Albright (US), Lloyd Axworthy (Canada) and NZ’s own Don McKinnon and then try to give assurances to a hostile Western media that he most probably cannot rely on.

In order to understand President Habibe’s position it is useful to make a hypothetical comparison.

After 40 years as a dictatorship The United Republic of North America, in response to an economic disaster and mass public demonstrations, makes its first tentative steps to democracy.

Before the election the caretaker president - who we will call Al Gore - agrees to a UN mandated referendum in South Texas. Twenty years earlier the URNA had boldly invaded and taken the territory from the UK who had till then held it as a colony.

In the election Gore’s party does not do well. But in the midst of the post election transition period the referendum Gore reluctantly agreed to goes ahead anyway. After a resounding decision in South Texas to leave the United Republic, Gore then finds elements in his massive military - who have been fighting a bitter guerilla war since the invasion and who until two months ago have been in effective control of the entire Republic – have a different idea about what to do in response to the referendum. They start killing the Mexican secessionists in revenge at the referendum result.

And then suddenly Gore – who thought he was just a transitional President - finds himself accused of war crimes and threatened with prosecution in the Hague. His economy begins to fail – his political supporters won’t answer his phone calls and to add insult to injury Mexico and Haiti are offering very insistently to send in peace-keepers.

So, so much for the decision not to come.

The question is now what can the foreign ministers meeting tomorrow achieve now, apart from agreeing with each other that something must be done but that they can’t do it because it is too dangerous?

They will be tempted, no doubt, to give the false impression – as they did in Kosovo – that they can do something for the people of East Timor. And while this will probably be willingly swallowed by many among the media contingent – and by the Western public – it is and always will be a lie.

So it is time again for some creative thinking. One place to start is President Habibe’s spokesman’s observation that the APEC agenda is not significant enough to warrant attending.

A good place to start would be to give the impression at least that he will receive a positive reception if he did come. Loudly declaring, as Australia’s Alexander Downer did today, that the situation is as bad as Cambodia under Pol Pot – when it is not – yet anyway – will not help assist in this regard.

Secondly the ministers could consider who they might invite to provide President Habibe a few useful photo opportunites with – we are assuming here that the silly shirt picture will not be usefully politically in Jakarta. UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, unlike most members of the “Anglo-Saxon club” has – thanks to his position on Iraq – a fair bit of Islamic credibility.

And then maybe it would be worthwhile thinking about what could be put on the official trade agenda to make it more significant?

After reading the report of the Japanese chair of the APEC Economic Committee it is hard to disagree that what is currently on offer at APEC does seem a little trivial in comparison to Indonesia’s domestic economi problems –which are rapidly being made worse thanks to threats of economic sanctions.

In his report to the summit Japan’s Dr Mitsuru Taniuchi observes that “structural reforms” in APEC economies would help restore post economic crisis growth. He is probably right, but his comments unfortunately read like a few handfuls of sand.

The report talks positively of the bounce-back among some Asian economies since the depths of the crisis last year – but Indonesia, which clearly suffered the most in the crisis, is not even mentioned.

Ditto the importance of tariff reform by developed nations doesn’t rate a mention.

Maybe some form of democracy encouragement economic package of aid, debt forgiveness and accelerated tariff reforms could be offered - particularly by Japan, the US and Australia? That would certainly be more enticing to Indonesia.

And if the cost of such a package seems high then perhaps the Foreign Ministers’ should consider the likely cost of one possible alternative – war.

(For more commentary on the crisis see the following item.)

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