Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: Under America's Shield

Forward defence: A New Zealand soldier on patrol in East Timor circa 1999. The collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 created a security vacuum in the Indonesian archipelago. It was a sharp reminder to New Zealanders and Australians of their ultimate dependence on American power.

EAST TIMOR poses a fundamental challenge for New Zealand’s strategic thinkers. For the first time since the "year of living dangerously" – 1965 – Australia and New Zealand are confronted with the reality of large-scale organised violence in their immediate neighbourhood. The events of the past fortnight raise issues that go way beyond Fiji’s ethnic power-plays, or the primitive skirmishing on Bouganville and Guadacanal. Indonesia, the fourth most populous state on Earth, sits astride the sea-lanes linking East Asia’s economies with their vital supplies of Middle Eastern oil. For the past 35 years its military forces have provided the United States with a reliable strategic counterweight to the growing power of China. Instability in the Indonesian archipelago is not something the region – or the world – can afford to ignore.

While Indonesia prospered under Suharto, Australians and New Zealanders were able to convince themselves that their governments were free to pursue a "peaceful" foreign policy. The Asian economic crisis of 1997-98 changed all that. As the Indonesian stockmarket and currency went into free fall, General Suharto’s brutal military kleptocracy could no longer conceal its crimes behind a dazzling economic growth-rate, and the old man was driven from office. In the power vacuum created by Suharto’s departure, the global financial community was determined to install a more transparent, honest, and open market economy. But to eliminate "crony capitalism" it was first necessary to establish a viable civil society – one in which basic human and property rights were respected. It was this process of democratic transition which sparked the crisis in East Timor, and now threatens to destabilise the whole of Indonesia.

The status of East Timor became a critical issue the moment democracy entered the Indonesian political equation. Never regarded as an integral part of the Indonesian Republic – the former Portuguese colony is not even mentioned in the 1949 Indonesian constitution which defines the national territory – its acquisition by force in 1974 unleashed a torrent of human rights violations. It is now accepted that at least 200,000 people – more than a third of the East Timorese population – were slaughtered by Jakarta’s troops between 1975 and 1983. While the Cold War raged, the Western powers were prepared to overlook the Indonesian Armed Forces’ (TNI) genocidal conduct. But, in the wake of the 1991 Dili Massacre, Western governments were gradually persuaded to lend their voices to the international clamour for East Timor’s independence. Suharto’s successor, the much under-rated B.J. Habibie, was merely bowing to the inevitable when he announced that the East Timorese people would finally be permitted to decide their own future in a United Nations supervised plebiscite.

But if East Timor was to vote for independence – as Indonesian military intelligence undoubtedly knew that it would – what was to become of the quasi-feudal fiefdom established on its soil? The province’s coffee plantations, hotels, wholesale and retail outlets – were all, in one way or another, linked back to the TNI. Whether through direct ownership or kickbacks, East Timor was worth millions to its military rulers and the rag-tag collection of collaborators and entrepreneurs that fed off them. A sovereign East Timor would leave a dangerous chunk of the TNI seriously out of pocket, and, under the bizarre kleptocracy established by Suharto, their losses would have to be made good from elsewhere in the archipelago. Not surprisingly, few military provincial governors were anxious to make room in their own operations for the displaced officers of East Timor – let alone their battle-hardened troops! The ferocity of the Indonesian military’s anti-independence pogrom is attributable, in part, to its fear of what might happen when the province is finally evacuated. The "knock-on" effects are already plainly visible in West Timor.

The "worst case scenario" for the region’s strategic planners is that the "loss" of East Timor will precipitate an outbreak of warlordism throughout Indonesia’s far-flung provinces. If the generals become convinced that President Habibie’s successful assertion of civilian control is about to put an end to the TNI’s extremely lucrative private operations – the military-owned resort hotels of Bali, for example - then their willingness to go on "protecting" the Indonesian state will be sorely tested.

The United States has too much at stake in the archipelago to let that happen. Nike has its subcontractors to consider, Freeport McMoRan its mines, and it is doubtful whether Texaco, Chevron or Mobil would take kindly to the loss of their oil concessions. The United States must also be concerned that a "balkanised" Indonesian archipelago would constitute an open invitation for other world powers – most probably China - to set up shop in the region. Chinese power athwart the seal-lanes linking the Pacific and the Indian Oceans is not a strategic outcome Uncle Sam would contemplate with any serenity.

Neither should Australia and New Zealand. By dint of their extreme geographical isolation, both countries have had a tendency to consider themselves immune from the great geopolitical struggles of the world. This is folly, because the very same isolation which "protects" them, also defines their dependence on open sea-lanes and open markets. Australia and New Zealand both rely heavily upon the export of raw commodities to support their sophisticated "first world" economies. Today, nearly all of those exports are absorbed by the nations of the Pacific basin. Instability in Indonesia – either in the form of a military revolt, or an upsurge in extreme nationalism and economic protectionism - poses a direct threat to the national interest of both countries.

The Australians have recognised the strategic implications of the East Timor crisis a great deal faster than the New Zealanders. In much closer proximity to the killing than Wellington, Canberra took the lead in demanding action against the incipient warlordism engulfing East Timor. As the only member of the United Nations to recognise Indonesia’s annexation of the territory, Australia’s newfound commitment to protecting the rights of the East Timorese people was entirely fitting.

Though hesitant at first - it was only a few weeks ago that the American Defence Secretary, William Cohen, was informing the Indonesian Chief of Staff, General Wiranto, that the US was ready to carry out joint exercises with his forces – the United States has clearly resolved to persist with the democratisation of Indonesia. Its crucial backing of a United Nations intervention force – led by the Australians – represents a clear signal to the Indonesians, and their faint-hearted ASEAN allies, that there must be no going back to the bad old days of Suharto.

There could be no clearer demonstration of who is the real guarantor of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Without the pressure brought to bear upon their Indonesian persecutors by the United States, the people of East Timor would have ceased to exist. And, although it may take them sometime to accept the fact, American pressure is the Indonesian people’s best guarantee against a return to the rampant corruption of military rule.

As they prepare to dispatch their soldiers, sailors, and airmen to East Timor, to serve alongside Australian and American peace-making troops, a growing number of New Zealanders may begin to harbour second thoughts about their country’s self-imposed exile from the ANZUS alliance. By a curious historical irony, it was the despised Indonesian régime which provided the regional strategic shield under which New Zealanders – especially left-wing New Zealanders – acted out their dream of a peace-loving, and anti-nuclear, neutrality. Now that the Indonesian shield has rotted away, New Zealand finds itself standing where its culture, its values and its history has always placed it – shoulder to shoulder with the Aussies, under the larger - and infinitely stronger - shield of the Yanks.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 22 September 1999.

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