A New Cold War


‘New Neighbour, New Challenge,’ a paper released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2002, outlines the importance of Australia for East Timor’s security. It also reflects East Timor’s importance for Australia‘s security, and provides a prism through which to view the latest developments:

Australia has a lot at stake in the future of our new neighbour. Altruistically we hope the people of East Timor can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future. More self-interestedly, their success or failure will directly affect Australia’s own prospects for security. Serious problems in East Timor would undermine Australia’s enduring strategic interests in the stability of our immediate neighbourhood.

At the moment, it is the seaways and maritime gas and oil reserves around East Timor that concern Australia, as well as the visible entrance of a regional player: China.

When Australia’s ally, the United States, made the Asia Pacific its top strategic priority in its 2001 Quadrennial Defence Review, it was clear to all defence analysts that the ‘peer competitor’ was China.

The recently released Pentagon annual report on China’s military power said China’s military build-up ‘has already altered military balances in the Asia-Pacific and could pose a threat to regional armed forces.’ The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Liu Jianchao, accused the US of exaggerating China’s military strength saying it is based on a ‘Cold War mentality.’

And a ‘New Cold War’ is exactly what has emerged.

East Timor is just one of the countries in the region caught in the crossfire between two powerful strategic competitors: China and the US. Unfortunately for East Timor, it happens to neighbour some of the Pacific’s most crucial waterways – most notably the Ombei Wetar Straits, a deep-water trough between the Indian and Pacific Oceans important for submarine passage, that would be a vital sea ‘choke point’ in any future conflict.

Politicians and commentators from across the spectrum have been candid about what they see as the dilemmas for East Timor in trying to balance the two giants. From the quick change of allegiance from China to Taiwan in Kiribati, to the targeting of ethnic Chinese during April’s riots in Honiara, the ‘China factor’ is causing chaos across the region. Locals fear that the regional hegemons – China, US and Australia – play a bigger part in this instability than any organic civil unrest.

The Australian press has chosen to ignore the bigger, strategic tussle until very recently, allowing the Australian Government to ‘engage’ in the Pacific with very little criticism or independent analysis.

Australia will continue to assert itself throughout the Pacific and from a defence rationale, this seems perfectly acceptable. What may be challenged is the wisdom of not intervening prior to conflict, but only once so-called ‘failed states’ have descended into chaos. Both the RAMSI mission in the Solomons and Operation Astute in East Timor reflect this.

Many of these Pacific communities are tiny, and it is easy to find handfuls of witnesses (or in my case, be a witness) to unrest that may have been easily contained and dealt with. It is impossible in East Timor’s case to understand how a gang of unruly unemployed youths protesting about their dismissal from the armed forces could emerge into two rebel gangs (with UN and Australian advisors present throughout the melee) calling for the Prime Minister’s removal.

Much has been said in the Australian press about ethnic divisions between east and west in East Timor having fueled the violence a convenient division if you wish to use civil chaos as a pretext for sending military forces and keep a country under your sphere of influence. But little is heard about how this is the third time international forces have failed to stop the people of East Timor being terrorised by a third party. First, there was the Indonesian rampage of 1999. Second, the unrest of 4 December 2002 (leading to the first calls by the Australian press for Alkatiri to step down, just prior to oil and gas negotiations). And now, civil chaos in 2006.

Just after the 2002 unrest, I interviewed local witnesses as well as the head of the UN and Australian forces about complaints that they did nothing to stop the chaos. After much investigation, I was told that a UN representative ‘unofficially’ went to the office to ask Prime Minister Alkatiri to resign, an interesting response to civil disturbance – and one that makes a mockery of the UN pretence of apolitical humanitarian efforts.

This time, the UN has said that it will send Ian Martin (who was the UN Special Representative in 1999 when international staff were evacuated, leaving East Timorese at the hands of the Indonesian military). The question that has not been answered is how the situation could have escalated this far? Will the East Timorese again hear hollow words from bureaucrats about ‘limitations’ in ‘ensuring their safety’?

The bigger question is of course whether Australia chose to allow East Timor to descend into anarchy ‘Solomons’ style, thus allowing their troops to be ‘forward deployed’ in this strategic location.

Richard Woolcott, who was Australian Ambassador to Jakarta at the time of the 1975 invasion of East Timor, recently said on ABC Radio that a senior member of the Bush Administration told him in 2000, that ‘Timor will be your Haiti.’

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Much has been written about Haiti and the American media’s demonisation of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Australia has embarked on a similar campaign with Alkatiri. The American press called Aristide and his Party unreconstructed Leftists whose model was the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Alkatiri is charged with being a ‘Marxist Mozambique’ – and his Fretilin Party ‘communist’ – despite his model being more Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad than anyone else.

In Haiti, the Opposition had the support of the US State Government-backed International Republican Institute (IRI). The US’s role in East Timor is no less interesting. The IRI, the National Endowment of Democracy and the National Democratic Institute have all created quasi ‘democracy’ programs that fund local opposition in East Timor the same opposition that enjoys good relations with Australia.

The Catholic Church, an influential body in East Timor, has also been behind the anti-Alkatiri campaign. Their protests in 2005 against Alkatiri’s moves to make religious instruction non-obligatory were a dangerous indication of just how powerful these forces have become.

Richard Woolcott’s Haiti comment came on top of eyewitness reports of Australian troops failing to ensure locals’ security and has only fuelled accusations that Australia is an important actor in the chaos. Local sources say two planes arrived with Australian personnel in non-civilian clothes prior to the call for Australia’s help. Australian advisors were seen meeting with rebels and their local advisors. These charges require further investigation if the suspicion of Australian involvement is to dissipate.

While many East Timorese understand Australia’s defence preoccupations in the Asia-Pacific, they also worry that the ‘Defence defence’ will allow Australia to dominate these small countries in East Timor’s case, one with substantial oil and gas reserves that have been the focus of difficult and protracted bilateral negotiations.

On 7 May, Marí Alkatiri called the recent unrest a ‘coup’ saying that ‘foreigners were coming to control and divide East Timor again’ with ‘foreign
advisors meeting with politicians and going to the hills’ to meet rebels. He accused the Australian media of spreading rumours that he was no longer Prime Minister. In an interview with me last week, he again reiterated that there was no doubt that forces ‘inside and outside’ East Timor were behind the unrest, and that no one was going to force him to resign through violent means. He claimed 200,000 people would support him in the streets.

Since 2002, Alkatiri’s rhetoric has been ‘let them try’ and ‘not without Fretilin’s consent.’ In interviews, his Cabinet ministers have openly declared that other countries ‘want to raise another flag over this nation.’ The implication has always been directed at Australia.

But when US officials started meeting with East Timorese judiciary in 2003, it was clear that bigger international efforts were underway. The Prime Minister said at the time that the judiciary were interfering ‘politically’ in the country. Privately, Alkatiri’s officials stated last month: ‘they tried the Church protests, now they are trying to oust him via Fretilin. It won’t work. They don’t understand this country.’

The Australian media have made no secret of what they believe should happen in East Timor editorial and commentary in both broadcast and print media have called for Alkatiri’s resignation. Yet there has been hardly a comment from the press or East Timor ‘human rights’ supporters on the ramifications of ousting Alkatiri unconstitutionally.

Inside East Timor, people are aware of the political games being played, and President Xanana Gusmão is seen as ‘Australia’s man.’ If Alkatiri is ousted through violent means, Gusmão will be left with the undesirable legacy of unconstitutionally expelling East Timor’s first leader, with the tacit support of Australia.

That would be a disaster for East Timor, because Haiti-like political warfare could ensue. East Timor will then truly become part of the ‘arc of instability,’ a convenient label for international political leaders that hides the devastation of local suffering.

If East Timor’s current plight is part of New Cold War politics, then the people of the Asia-Pacific have much to be afraid of and Canberra much to answer for.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.