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Upton-on-line: The East Timor/Indonesia Conference

Upton-on-line July 11th

Special Edition: The East Timor/Indonesia Conference

Last week, upton-on-line took two days away from the tawdry depravity of the House of Representatives and indulged himself at a seminar which gathered together an unrepresentatively bright and thoughtful audience devoted to picking over the entrails of the East Timor Crisis.

The seminar was organised by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and put together by the indefatigable Bryce Harland. It was a stunning success. For 48 hours it was almost possible to imagine that we were again part of the mainstream developed world, plugged into good analysis and debate that plumbed important issues without evaporating in rancour or superficiality.

What follows is a very brief summary to whet the appetite of upton-on-line subscribers. But every interested New Zealander should obtain the Institute’s comprehensive summary that will be published in due course. Joining the Institute would be an even better move – it’s about the one lifeline the lay community has to foreign policy debate here and abroad.

The Aim of the Seminar

The seminar’s full title says it all: The Consequences of the Crisis over East Timor for Indonesia and the Rest of the Asia-Pacific Region including Australia and New Zealand. Although East Timor at the epicentre provided the rationale for the seminar, the concentric circles of consequences that ran out through Asia Pacific provided an excuse to discuss all the big security and economic issues present in the region. It was as though the 'earthquake' in East Timor had been used to illuminate all the fault lines in the region. It was a very cleverly conceived 'way in' to rafts of other regional issues.

The Speakers

Phil Goff - NZ Foreign Minister

Phil Goff’s speech – which he wrote himself – was important evidence of the anguish that is currently consuming the souls of those who have been forthright advocates of the championing of democracy and human rights in the conduct of foreign policy. Goff was able to celebrate the ultimately happy out-turn of events in East Timor as being “in marked contrast to the years when democracies such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand failed to take the [sic] effective action against Indonesia’s invasion and even ceased to condemn the occupation and oppression” (something Phil never ceased to do from the safety of the Opposition benches).

But he had then to admit that no lessons could be applied to most of the other trouble spots throughout Melanesia since “each conflict while having some features in common also has unique characteristics”. He then ran through all the reasons why - despite the same human rights concerns being at stake in the Solomons and Fiji - there were no grounds for intervention although he drew the following strangely indeterminate conclusion:

“Few New Zealanders would advocate putting New Zealand soldiers’ lives at risk in a futile effort to stop macho young men killing each other. Yet should an escalation of ethnic violence mean a massive loss of civilian lives as in Rwanda or Kosovo the pressure for intervention may become irresistible.”

Irresistible to whom we do not know. Whether or not it includes all his colleagues is again left up in the air as this tantalising quote shows:

“Those on the left of the political spectrum [in NZ] have become converts to the concept of a combat ready defence force needed to carry out a peacekeeping operation of this nature. There are clearly occasions when military capability is needed to achieve peace and an end to oppression.”

There is a very subtle evasion here. Peacekeeping operations and the use of military capability to achieve peace are quite different things. I suspect the Minister has become a convert to the realities of the human condition and is trying to enfold his left-wing colleagues in his plans. Good luck to him.

The least realistic part of his speech was his somewhat self-serving verdict that Australian and American criticism of New Zealand’s withdrawal from regional security activities has been silenced. It hasn’t. No-one will argue that New Zealand did anything but an excellent job in East Timor. But the view across the ditch is that we’ve totally lost the plot in opting to phase out any strike capability in the airforce and navy. The Minister shouldn’t mistake tactful silence for endorsement.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar

Speaking as Associate Research Director of the Habibie Centre in Jakarta, Dewi Fortuna Anwar gave the Indonesian perspective on how the East Timor settlement was perceived in the land which originally occupied the former Portuguese enclave in 1975.

Anwar reminded the audience of a number of uncomfortable realities, not least the very high level of distaste for the way Australia had played its hand switching from being a supporter of Indonesian annexation to the great liberating supporter of self determination. This became something of a theme for the entire conference with Australians and non-Australians alike talking grimly of the devastation that had befallen bi-lateral relations between the two countries.

Her most important messages concerned Indonesia’s future: that Indonesia is a nation that has been defined in opposition to a colonial master (the Dutch) and that the old Dutch borders (which of course did not include East Timor) are the non-negotiable basis of nationhood. Faced with the real possibility of fragmentation based on ethnicity or religion, Anwar stressed the crucial importance of the integrity of Indonesia’s borders being supported by all players in the region.

Upton-on-line was not surprised by the vehemence of Anwar’s assertion of Indonesia’s territorial integrity. But he could not help feeling the foundation for the argument – Indonesia as a successor state to the Dutch East Indies – was floating in mid-air. But by now, the binding force of opposition to a colonial master must surely have faded. Post-colonial memories will be occluded – over time – by the differentness of the peoples of this vast archipelago. This is not to wish for a break-up – far from it: it would be the nightmare of nightmares for the region. But does Jakarta have the resources, the wit and – most importantly – the time to avoid it?

It was clear from Anwar’s analysis that an awareness of just these thoughts has made Indonesia doubly worried about Australia’s future orientation. If Australia could perform an about-face over East Timor, what similar volte face might not eventuate with respect to Aceh, the Moluccas or West Papua (Irian Jaya).

In response to some rather naïve questioning of Indonesia’s military expenditure she stressed the importance of increased expenditure to heading off a meltdown in the armed forces into warlord-ism and the re-colonisation by the military of political space.

And to get perspectives the right way round, she pointed out that from Indonesia’s point of view, the big issue during 1999 was not East Timor but the transition to democracy in Jakarta. While many in New Zealand were myopically focussed on Dili, Indonesian minds were focussed on Habibie’s erratic but ground-breaking march away from Suhartoism.

Asked whether New Zealand’s role had drawn the same reaction as Australia’s she replied that we had basically never even appeared on the radar screen – a salutary let-down for overly-eager kiwi proselytisers.

Richard Woolcott

The affable and good-natured Dick Woolcott was then invited to defend his country’s position with grace, humour and an appropriate leavening of sack-cloth and ashes. As a former Secretary of DFAT (our MFAT equivalent) his career has immersed him donkey-deep in the trials of East Timor and the bi-lateral relationship with Indonesia.

He conceded the huge damage sustained to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia both by its substantive policy changes and the outfall from PM Howard’s disastrous “Deputy Sheriff for the US” speech. It was a polished account that will stand careful reading when the Institute’s summary appears.

Noppadon Pattama

As parliamentary private secretary to the Thai Foreign Minister, Noppadon Pattama had an acute feel for the dynamics of ASEAN – the regional organisation looked to as a source of regional stability. He expressed the hope that ASEAN might play a more proactive role in the future but there was no sense that he expected the organisation to take any risks. On the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) – the only regional security forum – he was even more lukewarm, noting that it had not gone beyond 'preventive diplomacy'. All in all, the impression was that we could not look to these key regional bodies to take a lead in the future thus confirming the loss of ASEAN prestige that followed the Asian economic crisis and the East Timor affair.

Gerald Hensley

At the risk of sounding parochial and home-sideish, upton-on-line believes Hensley’s address was the highlight of the entire two days. Asked to outline regional security issues, the former NZ Secretary of Defence left his Virgilian holding , where he tills the Martinborough soils and came back to town to deliver a magisterial paper.

He identified three levels of regional pathology. The first – 'debris of the past' – encompassed “the whole range of border disputes, overlapping claims, contested rocks, reefs and islands”. These would be the source of periodic flare-ups but no real source of conflagration. If the ARF had an obvious near-term role, it was keeping all this debris hosed down.

The second level of pathology was the phenomenon of failing states. This encompassed most of Melanesia (Bougainville, Vanuatu, the Solomons and Fiji) in which (wonderful quote) “with the fading of the colonial twilight we are seeing the progressive enfeeblement of the colonially-imposed structures of government.” Hensley noted that independence and democracy were two different things – and that the consequences were ours to worry about with the withdrawal of the US from active engagement in these sorts of trouble spots. His warning: “what is sustainable in Melanesia may well fall some way short of what is desirable”.

The other failing state was North Korea. Tactfully (and, hopefully, truthfully) Hensley did not list Indonesia as a failing state. It was, rather, a state in renewal. Its vulnerabilities lay in its size and newness. Whatever the outcome, it was beyond external determination. Again, a razor sharp warning to the enthusiasts: “One thing we can avoid … is to take a simple approach and scrutinise Indonesia’s range of complex problems solely through the monocle of human rights.”

Finally, the third and full blown level of viral replication: strategic competition between the US and China. “Threats can only build a groundswell of resentment where there is a consistent grievance” opined Hensley. And there is one – Taiwan “which could tighten the noose around our long period of calm”. As Hensley points out, the interests of the great powers intersect in Taiwan. Absorbed into China in 1683, annexed by Japan in 1895 and then separated from Beijing’s control since 1949, Taiwan is a lightning rod for great power conflict.

The trouble for everyone, in Hensley’s view, is the 'unacknowledged hole' at the centre of US policy towards China. America has acknowledged that Taiwan is part of China for 25 years. It has also insisted that any reunification must be peaceful. Which is fine. Except the determination of the island’s fate has been handed to Taiwanese voters who may simply decide on a course towards independence that China will not tolerate.

Hensley’s prescription for American diplomacy was short: “subtle and cautious, qualities that do not always come easily to the foreign policy of a robust democracy.” Which of course raises again the issue of human rights and the sort of advocacy that politicians from Madeline Albright to Phil Goff feel instinctively compelled to advance. As Hensley notes (quote of quotes from a very quotable speech) “an inclination to missionary zeal still stalks the corridors of the Western mind”.

Hensley’s conclusion deserves to be quoted in full since it neatly ties together the problem all developed countries have in dealing with the region, whether at the level of the Solomon Islands or China:

“So we come to a final uncomfortable issue: could our missionary zeal for human rights and democracy ever become a threat to security? Surely not, democracy and the rule of law are two of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation. They are legitimate and indeed essential parts of our world view and as the ideas spread they should strengthen security rather than otherwise. Yet there is a balance to be struck when dealing with other societies. Single-issue diplomacy is just as blind to human realities as single-issue politics. When we move from advocating human rights to making them the yardstick by which we judge matters of trade, territorial claims or even the legitimacy of other governments we create an impression of post-colonial bossiness which is understandably resented in the region.

Isaiah Berlin reminds us that certain values, each highly desirable in itself, can be irreconcilable if pursued single-mindedly, without regard to others. The goals of human rights and regional security are two such. The Western democracies will need to be clear-eyed in pursuing a careful balance of these important values to ensure that we do not unwittingly create new difficulties in the region.”

Excellent questions and comments followed. The conundrum that most struck upton-on-line was the need to create an appropriate level of uncertainty about Chinese intentions in the minds of Taiwanese voters without giving Beijing the idea that its intervention by force in Taiwan would not be without risk. This is the 'hole' Hensley identifies at the heart of US policy towards China.

Ross Garnaut

A Professor of Economics at Canberra’s ANU, Garnaut was asked to talk about regional economic co-operation. Garnaut’s analysis of East Timor’s prospects was truly glum. It was, he said, in a weaker position than the Melanesian countries post-independence in the 1970s (and they are now falling apart).

The scale of support needed would be unprecedented, per capita in the contemporary world. Upton-on-line is not sure New Zealanders are aware of what this means but Garnaut was clear that, by their actions, Australia and New Zealand had committed themselves.

His cheerful verdict was that East Timor’s chances of making it were small, but if it didn’t then that was bad for the region and bad for Australia and New Zealand.

Hang Feng

Day two dawned with the Chinese view, carried by Hang Feng the Vice-Secretary General of the Chinese Association of Asia-Pacific Studies, Beijing.

As one might have expected this was a carefully prepared statement, reasoned but unyielding on the sorts of issues Hensley had raised the day before. China’s concern, domestically, was to cultivate the conditions for development that would underwrite national unity, stability and her territorial integrity. Rules for the region needed to “reasonable and fair for all players”.

On Indonesia, Hang Feng stressed China’s concern for her stability. He noted two de-stabilising influences – the economic and political turmoil that struck after 1997, and the deterioration in bi-lateral relations with Australia. The 'Howard defence doctrine' was pointedly recalled.

By way of a statement about China’s view of the UN, Hang Feng identified three reasons why the swift response on East Timor was forthcoming. First, there had been a consistent UN position on East Timor for a long period (the various resolutions supporting East Timor’s right to self determination). Second, there was “domestic chaos” in Indonesia. (In other words, Jakarta wasn’t in a position to impose a solution either way). And third, there were “no big differences between the big powers”. The implication of this analysis was clear: absent those pre-conditions and Chinese support for intervention in the affairs of another nation would be hard to come by.

But it was Hang Feng’s comments about the US that everyone was waiting for. The US, he complained, was through its pre-eminence, judge and jury in its own case (my words, not his). US 'flexibility' was not helpful – a point he illustrated deftly by noting that the US was in boots and all in Kosovo where there was no UN mandate but confined itself only to logistical support in East Timor where there was a mandate.

But Hang Feng reserved his most Delphic comments for the end: the international community would have to treat China’s emergence on the world stage as “a learning process.”

Questions focussed on China’s attitude to the Taiwan question. Why, questioners asked, could China not revert to the 1992 formula on 'One China – Two Meanings'? Hang Feng made it very clear that there was really only one meaning, and explained the arcane difference between One China and the 'One China Policy'. Neither the KMT nor President Lee Teng-hui had ever given away reunification whereas Taiwan’s new president Chen Shui-bian was unclear on this point. He claimed there had been a verbal agreement in 1992 to the One China Policy (as understood by Beijing).

China was not happy with Chen’s party roots. If Beijing was to talk to the Taiwanese leader, what would his status be, given his views? To needling from Bryce Harland who wanted to know why Beijing could not respond to the new President’s conciliatory noises the answer was unyielding: “new thinking was not possible at this stage”. If Taiwan accepted Beijing’s version of the One China Policy anything could be talked about. But there was no hurry. It was, he said “not a short-run problem … it needs time.”

One had the distinct impression that Beijing and Washington clocks run at different speeds.

Shijuro Ogata

The Japanese contribution to the seminar came from the former Deputy Governor of the International Bank of Japan. It was, in some ways, the most entertaining address of the day although much of it was focussed on regional and global trade matters that upton-on-line cannot do justice to here.

The key issue for Japan, with respect to East Timor, was the continuing problem for Japanese engagement in anything with a whiff of cordite about it. East Timor provided Japan with yet another opportunity to consider her inability to engage in peace-making and her resort, instead, to spending large sums of money in lieu of active involvement.

He described Japan’s immobility as being rooted in legality, sensitivity and risk aversion. The legal problem was the Japanese Constitution. Article IX prohibits the use of force except in self defence. This he said was the current interpretation (noting that it had originally been interpreted so as to disallow even self defence!). (Upton-on-line wondered at the extraordinary interpretative flexibility that Japan’s constitutional judges must have but was relieved to hear Ogata suggest that an even more proactive approach would probably be achieved by a formal amendment to the constitution rather than a further 'reinterpretation').

The 'sensitivity' was easily explained – bad memories of Japanese invasion and atrocities during the Second World War effectively ruling out useful interventions by Japanese forces throughout much of the region.

'Risk aversion' was the most interesting – and frank – admission Ogata made. The Japanese were “selfishly pacifistic” in not being prepared to take physical risks to preserve the peace. Ogata neatly observed the 'Japanisation' of other countries (no doubt an allusion to American avoidance of body bags through clinical missile exchanges rather than committing ground troops).

For all that, Ogata suggested that Kosovo (where a German Green Foreign Minister, Fischer, had committed Germany to her first combat role since 1945) and East Timor had brought the day closer when Japan might consider its anaemic approach to these matters.

On the big regional security picture Ogata painted this picture: vis a vis America, the US-Japan Security Pact would endure sensitivities over places like Okinawa notwithstanding. US-Japan business links were also extraordinarily strong. As far as China goes, Japan wanted neither “a hegemonic nor a de-stabilised China”. Rather, Japan wanted “an internationally engaged China” which made her WTO entry so important. Beijing should also get the Olympics for good measure!

On Taiwan, Japan sought a peaceful solution which depended on the rest of the world not provoking either side.

Douglas Paal

Appropriately enough it was left to a former member of the National Security Council in the last Bush Administration to make sure we hadn’t missed the plot on where Washington was coming from. Paal is currently President of the Asia-Pacific Policy Centre in Washington DC but must be a front runner for a key position in any new Bush Administration. For that reason, his verdicts were of more than academic interest.

Space cannot do justice to what was the frankest – and most complacency-shaking – speech of the seminar. It was delivered with the disarmingly pleasant exterior with which Doug clothes his flintiness.

His potted history of East Timor’s invisibility on the US stage together with an account of the UN’s peacekeeping disasters was crisp and memorable. (Haiti is the same as it was in 1895 except for the satellite gear and machine guns).

He characterised the extremes of American foreign policy thinking as Jeffersonianism (keeping out of everything) and Wilsonianism (meddling in everyone’s affairs). Somewhere in between (and just where we happen to find the American mood today) lies Jacksonianism. This assumed a fluency with early nineteenth century American history that upton-on-line didn’t possess. But the message of Jacksonianism was, however, pretty clear according to Paal.

Very simply, the US public cannot be led to the well of intervention too often because that will simply engender a reaction to any intervention at all. In short, the US wants to return to dealing with great power relations leaving it to lesser mortals to deal with the dirty washing at regional and sub-regional levels. East Timor was “remote, appalling and one crisis too many”. He explained that behind the scenes a great deal of preparatory work on a division of labour with Australia had been done, but the Administration (in the form of Sandy Berger) stuffed it all up with his comments about East Timor making the same sorts of claims as his daughter keeping a messy apartment in New York would.

In Paal’s view, the new focus on great power relations was not an abrogation of US responsibilities but a self-evident reality that America couldn’t be expected to play global policeman all the time. There was also a growing material gap between the US and former partners caused by the so-called 'revolution in military affairs' (RMA). This should cause partners and allies to think carefully and strategically about how they should re-equip themselves.

On this front he was pretty scathing about New Zealand. Whereas Australia had at least started a serious re-evaluation of its military hardware, New Zealand’s response didn’t rate. The intelligence gap (which he said was vastly under-appreciated) made New Zealand more of a burden than a boon in the field these days. New Zealand was free-loading heavily on Australia’s intelligence links. Whatever happened, New Zealand and Australia would have to provide their own in-theatre air cover, transportation and logistics. (Given recent decisions by our Government that adds up to Australia having to go it alone on many fronts).

It was question time that really set things alight. Would nuclear arms control treaties between the US and Asia be possible? Yes, was the answer, but only in the long run. We could expect major up-grading of weapons by China and the deployment of theatre missile defence all round before a new plateau of stability was reached. (This had the NZ part of the audience reeling: Dame Laurie Salas was “horrified”.) “We may have to have a few confrontations before we have talks”, Doug intoned in his good-natured way.

What about unilateralism over Taiwan? Paal drew a distinction between intervention based on Congressional fever, and a sober assessment of a real risk. In the latter case, the US would be “disappointed” if Australia didn’t get involved. This appeared to cause a few raised eyebrows in the Australian camp.

Would Theatre Missile Defence not undercut the ABM Treaty? Paal’s answer was, in essence, that the ABM Treaty was technologically obsolete and TMD was essential to counter rogue states. (After last week’s unsuccessful test one wonders how technologically viable TMD is).

Would CTBT be taken back to Congress? Yes it would, and its failure there was “much to be regretted”. Paal took a particularly dim view of the Clinton Administration’s handling of the issue in the lead up to the vote. The US would probably seek a five yearly review of monitoring as its price for ratification.

Finally, human rights were raised. Paal echoed other speakers in observing that since the end of the Cold War America had become triumphalist and demanding in a way that didn’t necessarily help the cause. He identified Pakistan as a case in point. A rapid push to democratisation could lead, in short order, to the first nuclear-armed, radical Islamic state in the world. Is that what absolutists wanted.

The session ended on a truly whacky note. A questioner asked what the US was doing to identify and destroy in-coming asteroids. Identification of bodies >1 km in diameter was already underway Paal noted. But as for doing anything about it? “You’re in the realm of Hollywood” Paal said.

Ross Cottrill

It was left to Ross Cottrill from the Australian Institute of International Affairs to provide an Australian world view. It was a very sober and conservative affair. East Timor didn’t get much airspace – indeed Cottrill stressed that there weren’t too many lessons to be learned from it. The big issue for Australia, rather, was deciding how to equip itself in the face of the Revolution in Military Affairs and “the US’ uni-polar moment”.

The only issue in respect of East Timor that aroused debate was Cottrill’s assertion that US leverage with Indonesia played a vital role. Dewi Anwar shot back the claim that the US had nothing to do with the outcome in Jakarta. It was multi-lateral pressure that did the trick – and the personal intervention of Tony Blair! (Doug Paal, across the room, looked mystified).

On Taiwan, Cottrill noted that there was a big gap between identifying the risk of a confrontation and offering military solutions. If it came to the crunch, it would be a purely political judgment by Canberra and “any military involvement would be designed simply to underline the political commitment, if made”.

Cottrill once again rehearsed the by now familiar lament about the disaster East Timor had been for bi-lateral relations with Indonesia and the region as a whole. Pauline Hansen, the Royalist vote and the Deputy Sheriff comments were combined into a cocktail of despair.

We then heard the familiar Australian analysis about the arc of instability to our north. This was part of a new security agenda involving trans-nation criminal activity and failing states rather than inter-state conflict. The 'old' agenda of power and competition had been amenable to military solutions. The new one, encompassing corruption, economic malaise and a collapse of institutions did not.

At the heart of security policy, Cottrill said, was the 'survival of the nation'. The two key long-term trends Australia had to understand were the industrialisation of Asia and the shift “from geo-politics to geo-economics” with the potential for conflict between investment and humanitarian interests.

And in closing, this apercu: “Australia has few natural allies and no abiding enemies.”


At this point upton-on-line had to scarper to an intensely important political meeting Thames so he didn’t hear the New Zealand perspective (provided by the Terence O’Brien) or the summing up (by Tim Groser). For this readers will have to refer to the official summary of the proceedings the Institute is planning.

But from the point of view of this participant it was a terrific two days. The near media blackout demonstrated just how far the domestic audience is perceived to be from these issues – and how irrelevant we are fast becoming in a world whose familiar points of contact are being swept away.

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