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Old Dec 4th, 2002, 07:50 AM   #1
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Australia's new 'hairy-chested' attitude riles its east Asian neighbours

Australia's new 'hairy-chested' attitude riles its east Asian neighbours

Malaysia warns that a pre-emptive strike would be an act of war

David Fickling in Darwin
Wednesday December 4, 2002
The Guardian

This week's public row between Australia and south-east Asia has thrown into sharp focus a truth that many in the region have realised for some time: after years of living as a peaceable power a new, more aggressive Australia is emerging.
The dispute was prompted by a television interview given by the Australian prime minister, John Howard, on Sunday in which he said he would be prepared to carry out a first strike in neighbouring countries were a terrorist group found to be planning an attack on Australia.

"It stands to reason that if you believe that somebody was going to launch an attack on your country, either of a conventional kind or a terrorist kind, and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity, then of course you would have to use it," he told Channel Nine.

The comment resulted in rebukes from Australia's traditional allies the Philippines and Thailand, as well as its more spiky neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, yesterday said: "If they used rockets or pilotless aircraft to carry out assassination, then we will consider this as an act of war and we will take action according to our laws to protect the sovereignty and independence of our country."

Mr Howard yesterday stood by his comments. "I made those remarks very carefully, in a very low-key fashion. They were quite accurate, they were not directed at any of our friends... I don't resile from them in any way."

Such fighting talk contrasts with the image Australia cultivated for much of the 1980s and 90s, as a diplomatically neutral country at pains to please its Asian neighbours.

Under the leadership of Mr Howard's predecessor Paul Keating, the country spent years redefining itself from an outpost of Anglo-Saxon imperialism to a multi-cultural south-east Asian country. While the process of economic and cultural integration has continued unbroken, the tone of public rhetoric nowadays suggests that Mr Keating's political vision is dead.

Most hope that, as with previous rows between Australia and its neighbours, things will eventually return to normal. But across the region, there is a growing suspicion of a more belligerent Australia which appears to be shedding its pro-Asian consensus in favour of a closer alliance with America.

For several years Canberra has been ramping up military spending, from A$9.9bn (£3.5bn) under the last Labor budget in 1995 to £4.5bn in 2001 and £5bn this year.

Populist rhetoric


To some extent, the affair is a storm in a teacup. No one seriously expects Australia to start launching strikes against south-east Asian countries: as military figures privately concede, the armed forces are simply not up to the job.

The shadow foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, said the comments arose from a desire to act "hairy-chested" for the domestic political audience. The difficulty is that what plays well in Mr Howard's core constituency often goes down very differently in east Asian political circles.

Just as Australians see Mr Mahathir's intemperate comments as tarnishing the image of Malaysia, so Asians despair of John Howard's populist rhetoric. "He has seized the opportunity to appeal to all the disagreeable instincts in Australian society which we thought we had grown out of," Glenn Barclay of Australian National University said.

Many have been shocked at how far the government has drifted from the bipartisan policy of engagement with south-east Asia, and Australia's keen support for the US on issues ranging from the Kyoto protocol to the war on Iraq has further isolated regional allies.

Of course, the truth is rarely as simple as the surface prickliness makes out. Australia's business ties with the region have continued to grow through the Howard years, and the investigation into the Bali bombing has produced the remarkable spectacle of Indonesian and Australian police collaborating on a politically sensitive case on Indonesian soil.

Some analysts argue that Mr Howard's drift away from Asia has had economic rather than political motives. "With Asia going into an economic slump after 1997, its relative political importance naturally goes down," Alan Oxley of Monash University said.

Others disagree, saying that the east Asian slump was all but welcomed by the Howard government. Greg Barns, a former Liberal party senator, says that he remembers the prime minister and treasurer Peter Costello "gloating" over the fate of the Asian tigers during the 1997 crisis.

Repositioning


Mr Howard's repositioning of Australia goes against both economic trends and popular opinion.

Polls conducted in June last year put defence behind inflation, women's issues, family affairs and the environment in people's priorities. Even the death of nearly 90 Australians in the Bali bombing has failed to make defence a core issue, although the number of people regarding it as important has risen from 38% to 63%.

But Mr Howard has managed to keep support for his defence policies, with his ruling Liberal-National coalition consistently receiving 40-50% support, against 20-30% for opposition Labor policies.

The secret of Mr Howard's success is his ability to detect mood swings in the electorate. Many Australians were left cold by Mr Keating's pro-Asia politics, and Mr Howard has deftly exploited a vein of xenophobia which gave rise to the One Nation party in the late 1990s.

This constituency has always thrown in its lot with the US and Europe rather than Asia, and in many ways the current policy is less a departure than a return to previous form. Until the early 1970s, the country had hitched its fortunes to a distant superpower - Britain until 1942, America afterwards. In the 1960s it was one of the few countries to join America in sending troops to Vietnam.

But for a small and isolated country, kowtowing has often been the best way of making friends. According to ANU's Professor Ross Babbage, Mr Howard's comments are more than anything a refreshing removal of the kid gloves which Australia has so often used to deal with south-east Asia.

"Many people in this country have gone out of their way to understand the nuances of south-east Asian politics," he said. "Well, it's time they made some effort to understand the nature of Australian politics as well."
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Old Dec 4th, 2002, 10:26 AM   #2
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CHOCO, are you a journalist?
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Old Dec 4th, 2002, 10:30 AM   #3
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His comments have not thrilled a lot of Australians either.
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Old Dec 4th, 2002, 11:03 AM   #4
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They should protect their own borders first.... only God knows when the next strike would be.....
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Old Dec 4th, 2002, 02:17 PM   #5
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I hope the countries in the East Asian region can find mutual cooperation to combat terrorism that is the scourge of the planet now.
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Old Dec 4th, 2002, 03:10 PM   #6
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Diplomatic strike to ease regional anger
By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Singapore and Cynthia Banham
December 5 2002

The Federal Government last night launched a major diplomatic offensive to limit the damage caused by comments by the Prime Minister, John Howard, about pre-emptive strikes against terrorist threats in the region.

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, called a meeting with the 10 ambassadors of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries in Canberra to explain the Government's position.

His message was that under no circumstances would Australia commence strikes against targets in their countries unilaterally.

"They [regional neighbours] know the obvious point that we are not about to launch bombing raids or land troops in ASEAN countries," Mr Downer said.

"We have a view that it is enormously important that all the countries in the region co-operate to deal with terrorism. All of those governments are opposed to terrorism.


"In the circumstances where there may be some terrorist plan to launch an attack on Australia we would expect that government to deal with that problem."

The meeting came yesterday as Malaysia joined the Philippines in threatening to break off anti-terrorism co-operation with Australia. Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, said yesterday he was prepared to cancel a new security pact unless Mr Howard stopped behaving like "the white-man sheriff in some black country".

A day earlier, Dr Mahathir had said his country would regard as an act of war any move by Mr Howard to implement his view that Australia was entitled, as a last resort, to take pre-emptive action to stop a terrorist attack.

"Their government attitude is not welcome," Dr Mahathir told reporters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. "We are co-operating as much as we can today in the fight against terrorism, but if they are going to blame us, we would have to re-think about co-operating with them."

Australia signed a pact with Malaysia several months ago to improve security co-operation and intelligence sharing. Similar agreements have been signed with Indonesia and Thailand and another is being negotiated with the Philippines.

Dr Mahathir said yesterday that Malaysia had good relations with Australians as people. "Unfortunately, they have a leader who is totally insensitive and thinks he is the white-man sheriff in some black country," he said.

Asked whether he regarded Mr Howard as anti-Asia, Dr Mahathir said: "I think there is that element. I think not all Australians support this kind of arrogant attitude of Howard."

Malaysia's government-controlled New Straits Times newspaper yesterday published an editorial denouncing Mr Howard under the headline, "Uncle Sam's foremost flunky".

"More American than Australian, Howard's latest design is clearly intended to create an international legal environment that affords freedom and legitimacy of action for the US and its satellite states such as Australia in the war on terrorism," the paper said.
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Old Dec 5th, 2002, 02:39 PM   #7
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I won't say sorry to Asia, says PM
December 6 2002
By Mark Forbes,
Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Canberra

Prime Minister John Howard has rejected demands that he apologise to Asian leaders and withdraw his comments supporting pre-emptive military strikes as a last resort to protect the lives of Australian citizens.

Mr Howard said he had nothing to apologise for, was representing the views of most Australians and the comments were not directed at Asian neighbours.

Opposition Leader Simon Crean attacked the government over revelations in The Age of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's assurances to Asian envoys in a crisis meeting on Wednesday night.

In the meeting, Mr Downer told the 10 envoys that Australia would not pursue moves to amend the United Nations charter to allow pre-emptive strikes to take place. He said the Prime Minister's comments were not directed at them, but aimed at "calming the anxieties of Australians" in the aftermath of the Bali bombings.

In parliament, Mr Downer said he had not told the meeting the remarks were for domestic consumption. But several participants confirmed he repeatedly said Mr Howard's comments were not directed at them, but were intended to allay Australian concerns about possible terrorist attacks.


Mr Crean said Mr Downer's pledge not to seek a change to the UN charter contradicted Mr Howard's support for the move. Mr Howard claimed the government had not made a decision to argue for the charter change.

Mr Crean said Mr Howard should make a personal apology to every Asian leader, as his comments seriously compromised the regional fight against terrorism. Attempting to play to public opinion and follow the United States was placing the public in danger, he said.

The Prime Minister described the call as extraordinary. "I didn't make that statement lightly, I didn't make it belligerently, I didn't make it carelessly. I made it conscious of my responsibilities to the welfare and interests of the Australian people," he said.

Similar comments made in June were ignored by the opposition and others, Mr Howard said.

Mr Downer said his meeting with the Asian envoys had reinforced regional cooperation on countering terrorism. He reassured them that Australia had no plans to land forces in Asian countries as part of the anti-terror fight.

Several nations have threatened to abandon anti-terrorism pacts with Australia, with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad accusing Mr Howard of arrogance and acting "like a white man sheriff in some black country".

Negative reaction continued in Asia yesterday, with Philippines Vice-President Teofisto Guingona stating that Australia had backed down in the face of a "howl of protest".

"I say it is an act of arrogance that disregards the right of nations, and prejudices our friendly ties. And our protest is not nonsense, it is the vibrant voice of reason," he said.

The comments were an apparent reaction to Mr Downer's comments that the protests were "nonsense" and "absurd".

Mr Guingona called for transparency in drafting Australia's proposed anti-terrorist accords with South-East Asian countries.
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Old Dec 5th, 2002, 05:47 PM   #8
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