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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Australia shrewdly plays role of U.S. ally in Pacific

By Tom Plate

It was not surprising that Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer emerged recently from meetings in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials proclaiming that Iraq would probably have to be confronted militarily — as President Bush has been saying. The blunt utterance looked to be further proof, as if any were needed, of Canberra's policy of parallelism with Washington on major security issues.

That's just fine by the Bush people. Last year they seemed to be searching, almost frantically, for an Asia-Pacific mate comparable to the Blair government in London. Their first instinct was of course Tokyo, which had the world's second largest economy and was a natural bulwark against China. But they soon soured on Japan — encumbered by a political system culturally adverse to decisiveness, a constitution that all but prohibits military engagement and a deeply troubled economy.

Enter English-speaking Australia, sporting a conservative government not unlike Bush's and unshy about exercising the military option. Though nothing like Japan in population (20 million versus 130 million), Australia somehow figured out a way to dispatch a sizable peacekeeping force to stem the carnage in East Timor, as then-President Clinton and the U.N. had requested; and then to dispatch special-forces teams to Afghanistan, as Bush had asked, to join in the retaliation for 9/11.

In an exclusive interview in Los Angeles recently, Downer, foreign minister in the government of Prime Minister John Howard since 1996, agreed that the terrorism crisis was probably bringing Washington and Canberra a bit closer together.

"No one's committing to a war against Iraq," he said, backing down slightly from his previous comment. "But at some point, strong measures may be necessary. There may be a bit of a sense that war is inevitable. I don't think so, but it's more than possible."

Downer believes that neither the United States nor any other government has been overplaying the terrorism threat: "We have a lot of Islamic extremists in Southeast Asia. It's a very big issue that gets to the heart of stability in the region."

The foreign minister pointed to all the pressures on the Philippines, whose president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he said, "made a good call by agreeing to have U.S. military advisers on her soil," and on Singapore, which has been "very focused on security issues." No wonder. In January, an Islamic terrorist cell there was uncovered "possibly involving financing, equipment and explosives" shipped from the Middle East and al-Qaida. Among the cell's targets: the embassies of the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

And consider all the pressures on Indonesia, which has the world's fourth largest population and largest assemblage of Muslims.

Many believe that President Megawati Sukarnoputri is no more up to the challenge in her country than Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is in his. Not Downer: "She's a skilled politician, thankfully, coping with the difficult problem of a kind of cultural schizophrenia: between a properly enthusiastic Islam, and a far more nationalist Islam."

The worry, of course, is that roiling Indonesia could metastasize into a radical Islamic state. Downer is one of the few leaders in the region to openly criticize U.S. congressional restrictions on more extensive bilateral military contacts between Indonesia and the United States.

The so-called Leahy Amendment, named after Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, may be inadvertently contributing to instability, he suggested: "It's all very well to lecture Indonesian leaders to take more initiatives against the country's extremist groups. But who's going to do that? Which Indonesian institution? Only the TNI (the military) can do that."

A worried Downer sought out Leahy on his D.C. visit but, he recalled ruefully, "he wouldn't see me."

On the Korean Peninsula issue, the Australian government has had differences with the Bush administration, which had "put a sort of freeze on negotiating with the North," Downer said. "But before long, the basic issue became obvious: If you're not going to have that policy (of engagement), what is your policy? Of course, it has to be engagement with your eyes wide open; the North Koreans are extraordinarily difficult to deal with."

Despite other disagreements with the Bush administration, especially over economic issues such as stifling U.S. import duties on Australian steel and lamb, and a discomfort with Washington's penchant for unilateralism, as symptomized by its pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, "On the broad positionings," Downer said, "there are a lot of points of agreement."

But, cry the country's opposition leaders, there are so many agreement points that Australia has practically become the region's "deputy sheriff" for the United States. Overstated or not, the phrase, not meant as a compliment, is likely to stick for some time.

Tom Plate, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post, is a professor at UCLA. Reach him at tplate@ucla.edu. He also has a spot on the Web.