Australian Foreign Policy and East Timor

Professor Stephen FitzGerald

I was in China when the decision was made to commit Australian troops. I saw the grabs on Chinese and regional television and I was relieved. But concerned. I was relieved because it was right, principled, ethical, humanitarian, and indeed imperative for us to have taken the decision we did. Much of the region was also quietly appalled at what had been happening in East Timor. I was concerned because of the immodest rhetoric issuing from Australia and some chest-thumping bragging from some individuals about our leadership role. While setting out on an essentially humanitarian mission, this seemed to say "Look at me! Look what a good boy am I!" This was also the received communication in Asian countries.

Australian Foreign Policy and East Timor

Professor Stephen FitzGerald was awarded the 1999 Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop Asia Medal on 1 December 1999 in recognition of a lifetime contribution to Asia-Australia relations. Professor FitzGerald, who is Chairman of The Asia-Australia Institute at The University of New South Wales, was appointed Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China in 1973 and was concurrently Australia’s Ambassador to North Korea. His acceptance speech is extracted below:

I was in China when the decision was made to commit Australian troops. I saw the grabs on Chinese and regional television and I was relieved. But concerned. I was relieved because it was right, principled, ethical, humanitarian, and indeed imperative for us to have taken the decision we did. Much of the region was also quietly appalled at what had been happening in East Timor. I was concerned because of the immodest rhetoric issuing from Australia and some chest-thumping bragging from some individuals about our leadership role. While setting out on an essentially humanitarian mission, this seemed to say "Look at me! Look what a good boy am I!" This was also the received communication in Asian countries.


But that's the fact of it, isn't it, you might say. Australia was in the leadership role, wasn't it, and no one else would take it on! Well, yes. But there were two things running. There was the decision and there was what was broadcast around it. And for the latter, particularly, there was a context. In the two years from the beginning of the Asian crisis there had emerged in the Australian projection of itself in the region a new stridency of self-righteousness, and a smugness about our 'fireproofed' or 'miracle' economy and, not to be outdone by the Americans, our own form of triumphalism. Some Australian ambassadors had warned about this privately at a meeting in Canberra earlier this year. and Dick Woolcott, is said to have advised the Australian Government in mid-year that Australia even then was seen negatively in Indonesia as 'boastful' about its role in East Timor We had been properly quick and generous in our support for the three economies most stricken by the Asian crisis, as we will be generous with East Timorese. But before East Timor certain Australian leaders had begun to ooze this boastful and parochial triumphalism, and to suggest that an economy in good shape had somehow given us a right to leadership in the region at large.


I came back from China to a hyperbolic rhetoric and a political atmosphere such as I had seldom seen in Australia, and I felt. if you'll forgive me, weary . I had been reading David Walker's Anxious Nation which deals with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australian attitudes and emotions about Asia, and it might almost have seemed that nothing had charged. I found politicians and media in a state of extreme over-excitement, defence specialists talking of political disintegration across Asia and calling for massive increases in defence spending, and opposition politicians saying that because of East Timor we must populate the north! In the public relations management of the commitment of Australian troops there was even suggestive reference to Vietnam, more appropriate to going to war than to going to enforce peace.


Then came an explicit triumphalist 'leadership' message: today East Timor, tomorrow the whole of East Asia. And sadly, in that message, a familiar semantic ducking and weaving around the difficult intellectual challenge of how, conceptually, we define and position ourselves in relation to what Asian countries themselves are planning to do with this region - how we define our position in a broad long-term strategic and grown-up foreign policy sense. It was even said that to do so was not important! And there was an old self-delusion that somehow we4, unilaterally, can define what kind of relationship there will be between Asia and Australia, as though what Asians might think about that doesn't exist or doesn't matter. And there was a coded and not-so-coded message drawing a line between us and them, between being Australian and being Asian.


Some may protest that the words did not say that precisely, although some of the words were indeed very explicit. But Australians know what message is there, and it is surely the one they were intended to pick up. And so unfortunately do people in Asia. And the message says this. We are about being. not becoming. It says we will do nothing in or with Asia that requires adjustment on our part. It implies an absolute values and moral superiority. It ignores a history of Australian attitudes in Asia associated with White Australia. It suggests to Australians that with governments We don't like in Asia there can be a stand-off which would defy the realities of international relations and which could not be sustained without damage to Australia's interests. It says we have a right to lead them, Asians, but we are not one of them, and do not want to be. To quote "Gee, we were ourselves in Asia over the last few weeks".


The government has said there has been a change in our foreign policy -or hasn't, it depends on who you listened to when. But on two points there is agreement. and these are that we won't have any truck with people like Suharto and we won't put ourselves in a supplicant position to Asian governments on anything. The government's critics also say there's been a change in foreign policy, and some have suggested it has set our relations with Asia back 30 years. I don't agree, on either. I do not believe any politician who tells you there will be a stand-off with any unsavoury leader or government in the region, except in Myanmar which is a pariah state and even there we have been playing footsie. I don't believe we will see any material change in the way government approaches relations with Asia in practice, at what might be defined as 'more or less similar levels of engagement'.


But what about Asians' policies towards us? Hasn't there been damage there? Yes. But neither our role in East Timor nor statements in that context by certain Australian leaders has set our relations back 30 years, even with Indonesia. Set back, yes. But the cumulative efforts of tens of thousands of Australians and Asians have put in place a fabric of networks across the region, which will sustain our relations with Asian countries through difficult times, at these 'more or less similar, levels of engagement - these are educational and academic networks, and business, in the arts and the media and sport and through many thousands of NG0s, and official and military. Thirty years ago we had almost none of this. Regional countries, for their part, including Indonesia, also have interests in maintaining stable relationships with us, again. at these 'more or less similar levels of engagement.


So it is frivolous for any Australian leader to have cast even subliminal messages into public discussion which say to Australians that we won't court and don't need- special relationships and that from now on Asia policy and relations with Asian countries, from our side, will be a whole new ball game. It's not. And it's frivolous also for critics to say we've been set back 30 years.


But the broadcast rhetoric of recent weeks reflects, as it also at the same time has encouraged, a politically and ethically compromised situation for us in Asia. And here's the real damage. The appalling and tragic situation in East Timor presented Australia with a contingent opportunity, of another kind - we might say of a "Weary' Dunlop kind - and we blew it! In the region, Australia had been travelling well. Gareth Evans had been a wonderfully effective builder in regional relations and so also is Alexander Downer. The Asian crisis had brought realism to the appraisal of weight and worth in regional affairs, and Australia's economic vitality had put paid to the Lee Kuan Yew-led proposition that Australia couldn't be part of the region because of our growth rate. We were positioned in regional affairs in a way we had not hitherto achieved; positioned to move beyond the 'more or less similar levels of engagement.'


The broader opportunity for us around the East Timor situation was therefore not to grab the trumpet and the drum but to turn down the volume, and say, quietly: we have a moral position which we'll strongly and unreservedly express. But we're a neighbour, we're here to help, in whatever way is appropriate and acceptable, and if that's not in the lead, that's fine. And to have gone effectively about the difficult behind-the-scenes diplomacy, which we did, and the even tougher on-the-ground task, which we have done.


This would have left us in an enhanced an unassailable position of political and moral strength in the region at large - and removed much if not most of the ground from under our critics, even in Indonesia. It would have set us up, almost without political baggage, and without having to go cap in hand to anyone, for acceptance into regional formations from which we have been, or might in future be, excluded. It was a strategic opportunity. And we blew it. And the way we blew it will now inhibit our prospects for moving beyond 'present levels of engagement', because we are damaged in Southeast Asia and in some quarters also in China, Japan and Korea, and the damage will take some time to repair.


On the domestic front there was a similar opportunity, similarly mis-played. Here the opportunity was to use what we had to do in East Timor to send a different set of messages to the Australian people, to say, in a quiet "Weary" Dunlop way: this is what it means to be a neighbour in Asia; this is not about the white man's burden or natives running amok who have to be saved from themselves; it's not about difference, but about being the same, about solidarity with Asians as neighbors. as people, with good values. not just East Timorese but Indonesians and everyone else; and saying this is what our future together with Asia means, taking the economic gains, sharing the social and human losses; accepting the responsibility you have when you belong to a community. We rarely have such opportunities to dramatize domestically an argument in foreign policy. Here was an opportunity to educate, to bring people along in the complexities and uncertainties that confront us in a globalising and regionalising world, and not to traffic in simplifications for domestic advantage; an opportunity to lead, in a political and ethical way. And we blew this too. How sad that is for Australia.


We missed these opportunities because in the rhetoric and the explications and the direct and implied messages the fundamentals of the Australian project in Asia were absent. The idea of Asians as people, for example. We rightly focussed on humanitarian issues for East Timorese, but good friends in Indonesia question why so often we use the generic term 'the Indonesians' in our criticisms of what has been done in East Timor. And beyond Indonesia. some of our messages had such strong undertones of demarcation, disparagement and suggestion that Asians need offend detractors and supporters alike.


Also absent was a sense that at the very top there is understanding and effective management of the processes of our engagement with Asia, even intellectual curiosity about our region. And I don't know where this idea of Australian leadership in Asia has come from, but it's got some currency around the Australian leadership, and its even been spoken of as our 'natural' role in the region. The objection to the idea, of course, apart from its unpleasant supremacist connotations, is that it is so utterly unrealistic. Who stands up to follow?


Absent too was a weight of educated public opinion in support of broader foreign policy objectives in the region; and the encouragement of populist anti-foreign sentiment will now make it harder in future to get that support when it is needed for other purposes.


And disturbingly absent was a sense of a well thought out broad policy and strategic framework for our regional decisions and actions. No definition was given of where in future we might or might not repeat the East Timor exercise or why. No foreign policy framework of objectives, relationships or rationales was set around the foreshadowed increased spending on defence. No statement has been given to the Australian public of the damage done to our relations with the wider region or what this might mean. We have been given no set of alternative scenarios for Asia's future or where we see ourselves in them.

The root problem is that we do not have a foreign policy in East Asia. The Prime Minister said as much when he said it wasn't important to define whether we want to be part of Asia or how. This, of course, depends on what you imagine Asia to be. If this were back in the time of colonial Asia, that might be acceptable, just. But here we come to the question of the parameters of government thinking and public discussion on the region, which do not allow the full exploration of the national Interest in Asia. We seem to know what we are not for. The Prime Minister has said we are not for special relationships. But special relationships are about doing what is necessary in order to have influence, in order to get what we want. Are we not for influence? Without special relationships how would we get it?


But if we had it, what would we want? Because there is a real-world, real-time Asia beyond the imagining of government or opposition. Neither government nor opposition has even said publicly what it thinks about where we stand in relation to one of the most important developments in the region this century. This is the now possible, indeed likely, formation of an East Asian community, ultimately somewhat akin to Europe. This has been gestating in East Asia while we have been rivetted on East Timor. Key regional presidents and prime ministers are involved: no longer just Dr Mahathir. Within the last three months previously unthinkable have found a place on the regional agenda; a monetary fund, a common currency, a common market and even an East Asian EU. The proposal is to join Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia in one formation, without America. An East Asia Vision Group is already at work on the policy domains. ASEAN and its three Northeast Asian partners are already working on the institutional framework There is even implied a tacit acceptance of leadership roles for China and Japan This is far beyond Mahathir and the EAEC. And its not going to go away.


And this is what the big debate in Australian foreign policy needs to be about. Elsewhere in the region this is a big issue. But the parameters of the discussion here do not encompass such an odd idea because that’s not the way we imagine the region. We are not thinking laterally. We have not looked at the region from a non-Australian point of view. We don't have a position.


This leads to one of three conclusions. One is that Australian leaders think it's not important, which would be astonishing. One is that they know it's important but want Australia to remain outside it, because to be in it would mean a bit of necessary humble pie and a really close engagement with Asians which they might find unrelaxing or uncomfortable; but they're not prepared to discuss it, because that would mean opening up discussion of the very serious implications for us of not being in it. And one is that they think we ought to be trying to be in it; but that would mean admitting to the Australian public that in present circumstances this is a remote possibility because of the damage done to our position in the region through the broadcast rhetoric of self-promotion and domestically motivated distancing from Asia in recent months.


This is what that has cost us. And it's not an ordinary cost, to day-to-day affairs. It's a heavy cost But the Australian project in Asia has so far taken us more than 30 years, for our kids. If it's now going to take another 30 years, then let’s get on with it.