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Treading On Toes - US Business In Indonesia

"We have myriad business interests in Indonesia," said US State Department spokesperson, Jaine Rubin, when explaining his government's reluctant involvement in East Timor. But could taking more responsibility for our own regional defence mean we could also step on the toes of United States regional business interests? John Howard reports.

While the Scoop newswire has been actively reporting and commenting on Asian news for some time, mainstream newspapers, radio and television will have to focus much more in the future on what is happening in and around the Asian region and how it might affect New Zealand. It will no longer be good enough to concentrate on American, British, or European news stories.

Why? Because Australian Prime Minister John Howard last week signalled a sweeping review of defence spending and foreign policy as a result of the East Timor crisis.

NZ Defence Minister Max Bradford also says the reluctant involvement of the United States in East Timor is a wake-up call to New Zealand that it will have to take greater responsibility for its own defence.

Bradford foresees a strategic review of defence policy after the election which would re-evaluate the ability of New Zealand and allies to respond to perceived threats. He said he found it offensive that many New Zealanders assumed they did not need to do anything, that Uncle Sam would come to this country's aid.

"That's a bloody immoral position for anybody to take. What the East Timor situation has done is show that the US will not always involve itself in every conflict or place of unrest in the region," he said.

A September 9 front page story of the New York Times gave the reasons. The headline read, " With Other Goals in Indonesia, U.S Moves Gently on East Timor." Business interests, and balancing those business interests, was what the article was all about.

The New York Times article also acknowledged a U.S. government concern that the threatened IMF loans and aid cut-off "could also harm American corporations that have large investments in Indonesia."

Similarly, Newsweek echoed this same basic sentiment saying the United States should be "realistic" in setting its policy on East Timor and noting the multiple US interests in Indonesia and the importance of promoting "stability."

Since the prescription was to balance these Indonesian "interests" in "stability" against the lives of the Timorese, it is worth identifying what they are.

Nike's subcontractor factories, the mines of Freeport McMoRan and the oil and drilling facilities of Texaco, Chevron and Mobil. Clearly, there was a US government worry that pressure on Indonesia might conceivably have led to the revocation of concessions and privileges of US corporations.

Worse, was and still is, the possibility that support for the Timorese will somehow flare up Indonesian separatist movements in Aceh (where Mobil is heavily invested) and Irian Jaya (where Freeport McMoRan runs the world's largest gold mine).

Where would all this leave a new dedicated regional defence force, perhaps consisting predominately of Australia and New Zealand, if ever there was a need, for our own strategic interests, to intervene as a peacekeeper in a country in which the US also had strategic or business interests and they did not want us intervening?

Would we go to war against the US? Or would we capitulate even though it was in our regional strategic interests and there might have been gross human rights violations?

Valid questions? Absolutely.

From now on, what the US and other countries say and do and what is actually happening in our region, will be of vital importance to us. That is the wake-up call.

ENDS

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