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Asian Contributions to ET Raise Concerns of Unity

Asian Contributions to INTERFET Raise Concerns of Unity

September 28, 1999


The largely Australian International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) has been in East Timor since Sept. 20. The initial composition of the force led to debates between the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries over the long-standing principle of noninterference. While Asian nations originally leaned toward offering troops to express Asian unity and stave off a primarily Western force in East Timor, domestic politics and inter-Asian relations are hindering their deployment. Spurred by Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s redefinition of Australia’s role in Asia, Asian nations are now rethinking their decisions to move into East Timor.


Troops from the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) have been in East Timor for just over a week. The contingent, primarily composed of Australians, also includes personnel or observers from several Asian nations including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea.

Within these countries, especially the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), participation in the peacekeeping operation in East Timor triggered debate over the longstanding ASEAN principle of noninterference. Further inflaming the issue is Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s redefinition of Australia’s role in Asia. Amid domestic concerns and inter-regional relations, Asian nations are once again rethinking their positions on East Timor and nonintervention.

The initial call by Malaysia for an ASEAN or Asian force for East Timor was partly a move to block further Western interference. With Indonesia’s final yield to international calls for an intervention force in East Timor, Malaysia and other ASEAN nations began to weigh the noninterventionist principle against Western military imposition. With the Indonesian government's approval of the U.N. forces deployment into East Timor, even non-ASEAN Asian nations like China, Japan and South Korea questioned participation. While there was no official creation of an all-Asian force in East Timor, several Asian nations promised troops or aid, calling on the international community to respect Indonesia’s request for a force comprised primarily of Asians.

Despite these calls, Australia remains the center of the operation. With Asian nations given the backseat, and therefore unable to block Western powers from guiding the Timor force, political and economic concerns returned to the forefront, causing delays and reductions in the forces offered. Without the regional political incentive of maintaining Asian unity in all matters, including security, the economic realities of deploying forces for an extended period of time now weigh heavily on the Asian participants. Reports indicate that the Philippines can only afford a three week deployment, and Thailand, which is to have the second largest contingent of troops following Australia, expressed budgetary concerns and may be reducing its involvement by half.

Within the nations, politicians are also raising the question of relations with Indonesia and business and expatriate safety. In debates in South Korea and elsewhere, the sending of combat troops, rather than just medics and engineers, raises the concern that Koreans will be at risk of attacks from nationalist Indonesians opposed to foreign intervention. In Japan, the issue of sending Self-Defense Forces (SDF) peacekeepers to East Timor has triggered another assessment of Japan’s regulations concerning participation in U.N. operations.

Economic and domestic issues aside, Asian nations continue to struggle with nonintervention. Howard’s comments that Australia would take a more direct role in regional security issues, though later recanted, have triggered opposition from Asian nations, particularly Malaysia. Malaysian Foreign Minister and Defense Minister Abdullah Badawi, referring to the so-called Howard Doctrine, told the Straits Times, "We did not appoint them. We don’t wish to see any nation which sees itself as keeper or leader or commander in the region."

Howard’s statements have also fueled the accusations that Thailand, which pushed to take the lead role in INTERFET among Asian nations, is pandering to Western nations. With Australia apparently declaring itself the hand of Western interventionist policies in Asia, Thailand, as ASEAN’s president, must decide carefully how far to cooperate with the Australians in East Timor.

Thailand has consistently emphasized that it is not in East Timor under an ASEAN banner and now it is equally adamant that it is not under Australia’s banner. Thai Maj. Gen. Songkitti Jaggabatra, commander of the Thai forces in East Timor, told The Nation newspaper, "We are not doing our job under Australia. We don’t care what has been going on between Australia and Jakarta. We are under the U.N."

The moves by Asian nations to reconsider deployment to East Timor were not unexpected. Nonintervention has been a hallmark of ASEAN and inter-Asian relations in general. While at times a point of contention, noninterference allowed the formation of regional economic blocs without concern for domestic political issues like human rights or even democracy.

However, with Asia entering a new era where the economy may be matched or even overshadowed by political and security issues, noninterference discussions will continue. East Timor is but the first post-economic-boom trial for Asia, testing the extent to which Asian nations can cooperate and abandon their old principle of noninterference to prevent Western forces from dominating the security and political arenas. If Asia decides to maintain its noninterference policy, it will sacrifice regional issue independence. Given this reality, Asia will likely move toward a more Asia-centric mechanism to deal with future crises like East Timor.


Republished with the kind permission of

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