KASAMA Vol. 18 No. 3 / July-August-September 2004 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Australian Diplomacy like 'a bull in a china shop'

22 SEPT 2004 - "Any intrusion by 'flying squads' into Philippine territory is out of question," said Ignacio Bunye, the Philippine President's spokesman and press secretary, responding to media questions about Prime Minister John Howard's plan to deploy "flying squads" of Australian police to stop terrorist attacks in the Asia-Pacific regions.

Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak also stood firm saying it would be a breach of national sovereignty. "We won't allow any pre-emptive strikes when it comes to our own national territory," he said.

Indonesia's ambassador to Australia, Imron Cotan, and nine other representatives from Southeast Asian nations were told by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer two years ago that Australia would not deploy troops to intervene in regional countries. "We were told that the concept was still being developed and that Australia would not send any troops to do this pre-emptive strikes," Cotan said on ABC Radio News.

The Australian government then quickly reassured its Asian neighbours that pre-emptive strikes against terrorist encampments overseas would not target its partners in the war against terror. Contradicting his Prime Minister, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said the government's proactive stance on thwarting a terrorist attack isn't directed at those with solid counter-terrorism measures already in place like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. "In a situation where a terrorist was about to attack and the country involved either didn't want to or in their case couldn't do anything to stop it, we would have to go and do it ourselves," said Downer. If needed, he said, Australia would target "failed states" that were unable to police themselves.

The opposition Labor Party leader Mark Latham called Howard's idea self-defeating - Australians would be outraged if the reverse happened, he said. "Imagine if a country in our region said it was prepared to launch unilateral strikes on targets in Australia, our sovereign territory, without the cooperation and involvement of the Australian government. Imagine the outrage in this country. We would feel absolutely appalled."

Mindanao was recently described in an Australian government report as being a nerve centre of regional terrorism. The report turned out to be based on an outdated British intelligence compilation of interviews with a supposed Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) defector and other sources alleging the existence of two Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) training camps for JI recruits. In response, the MILF invited Australia to send monitors to its camps, but Minister Downer scoffed at the idea saying the true nature of the encampments would not be revealed.

Amando Doronila, a highly respected Filipino journalist, is currently a visiting lecturer at the Australian National University. Doronila observes that Australia's "gun boat diplomacy" has seriously rankled Southeast Asian sensitivity over national sovereignty:

"Howard's proposal has kicked up a fresh round of irritation in Australia's relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors already frayed by Canberra's insolent and patronizing statements over their capacity to curb terrorist activities and their commitment to the US-led coalition in the war on international terrorism. Malaysia and the Philippines, the countries likely to be asked to host the Australian "flying squads," promptly rejected Howard's plan.

"The image conjured up in Southeast Asia by the Howard threat is that it is a pale imitation of U.S. President George W. Bush's pre-emptive policy on terrorism exemplified by the US-led invasion of Iraq. The plan reminds Asians - not only Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians but also Chinese - of American gun boat diplomacy being resuscitated by Australia.

"Through its steadfast commitment to Bush's 'coalition of the willing' on Iraq and through its deployment of 800 troops in the occupation of Iraq, Australia has etched a strong perception in Southeast Asia that it is playing the role of regional sheriff in the counter-terrorism war in the Asia Pacific as a surrogate of the global gendarme - the United States - whose pre-emptive strike policy is failing as an effective instrument to fight terrorism, in the light of the escalating attacks by Iraqi militants on US troops in Iraq and the execution and hostage-taking of individuals associated with American interests.

"In other interviews, some government ministers said pre-emption did not foreshadow strikes on suspected Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist training camps in Mindanao. Howard and Downer have said JI camps would not be attacked because there was no evidence it would attack Australia directly. Any deployment of Australian teams would require negotiations with host countries on the modus of their operation and cooperation with local authorities.

"Any Australian deployment in Mindanao would be superfluous and would run into complications with the anti-terror operations already under way. Joint military exercises are taking place between Philippine and American troops in connection with their joint campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, the terrorist group linked to the international terrorist network al-Qaeda."

Extract from: Analysis: Australia's 'gun boat diplomacy' , Amando Doronila, "Philippine Daily Inquirer", 23 September 2004.