Both nations would benefit from U.S. military presence in Australia

September 11, 2001|By Robert O. Freedman

AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister John Howard's scheduled meeting with President Bush today appears designed to strengthen his domestic political situation as his bid for re-election nears.

He faces a number of immediate and long-range challenges.

His rejection of the asylum-seekers, chiefly Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were taken aboard a Norwegian cargo ship when their Indonesian ferry sank, has raised questions both domestically and internationally about his leadership capabilities.

Mr. Howard, who is running neck-and-neck in the polls with opposition leader Kim Beazley in the run-up to the year-end election, came to Washington to pursue a free trade agreement that he hopes will bolster his standing at home. The United States has become Australia's chief military ally.

His forcible prevention of the landing of the asylum seekers appeared to many Australians to be a pre-election ploy to deflect the threat from the right personified by Pauline Hanson, leader of the One Nation party.

Ms. Hanson, a bitter opponent of Asian immigration - especially Muslim immigration - has had her position strengthened by news reports that gangs of Lebanese Muslim youths in Sydney were raping Australian girls and shouting racial epithets.

Beyond these immediate concerns, a more serious problem looms - how to define Australia's relationship with Indonesia, a country of 206 million people just north of Australia, whose population is less than 20 million.

Australian policy toward Indonesia in the past 25 years has ranged from appeasement to confrontation.

It was appeasement in the case of former Indonesian President Suharto under which Australia not only acquiesced in the Indonesian conquest of East Timor but also provided military assistance to the Indonesian army.

It was confrontation in 1999 when Australia, under Mr. Howard's leadership, led a U.N. force to free East Timor from Indonesian occupation following Indonesian atrocities after the East Timorese had voted for independence.

In the short run, with a new Indonesian president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in power, both Mr. Howard and Mr. Beazly have advocated a policy of cooperation.

While Australia's relations with the new government have begun relatively smoothly, there is no guarantee that Ms. Megawati will be able to remain in power and not be replaced by a Suharto-like military regime, especially if the rebellion in Aceh and the dissident movement in Irian Jaya gain momentum.

Under these circumstances, a closer relationship with the United States would help Australia. Secretary of State Colin Powell has asked Australia during his visit last month to cooperate in an Asian security alignment consisting of the United States, Australia, South Korea and Japan.

Part of this alignment could be composed of a U.S. security presence in Darwin, in North Australia, opposite East Timor. Such a presence, which could be composed of Air Force, naval and limited troop deployments, would have advantages for both countries.

Some U.S. troops could be reassigned to Darwin if Washington is forced by Japan to reduce its presence in Okinawa. Such a move would give Australia three advantages.

First, it would raise the cost of a decision by an Indonesian military regime to attack Australia. While now unlikely given Indonesia's weaknesses and divisions, such an eventuality cannot be ruled out in the future.

Second, the U.S. presence would serve to protect the sea-lanes north of Australia, which are vital to Australia's trade.

Third, the U.S. presence would help protect the major oil and natural gas fields close to East Timor.

Robert O. Freedman is a Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He recently visited Australia.

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