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Howard seizes opportunities in the wake of the Tsunami

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 14 January 2005

One can only boggle at the magnitude of the Indian Ocean tsunami catastrophe and the toll it has taken of lives and property. The fact that among the worst hit areas are two - Aceh in Indonesia and the Tamil section of Sri Lanka - where armed conflict has been going on for years, even if precariously contained in Sri Lanka of late, can only amplify one's feelings for the unfortunate people of both areas.

Yet at the same time one can hope that the need for all to pull together in the aftermath of natural disaster might offer an opportunity for the warring parties in both countries to pull back from conflict and try co-operation. Neither the Acehenese nor Tamil separatists, or the regimes in Jakarta and Colombo, will gather much credit if they allow this opportunity to pass, and nor will they be thanked by their people. While it true, as some commentators and Foreign Minister Downer have said, that hardline fanatics will not be moved even by this intercontinental disaster, the chance is there for such people to be marginalised if those not ruled by hate or lust for power act appropriately.

For Australia too there is opportunity. In particular there is the chance perhaps to undo some of the damage done to Australia's regional profile by Howard Government policy in the last few years. Australia has always been uneasy about the nature of its relations towards its regional neighbours, but in late 2004 the Government displayed a quite disconcerting level of insensitivity, even approaching incompetence, in its management of several important issues.


Ever since John Howard articulated his now notorious support for the concept of Australian military pre-emption on foreign territory we have had to carry this monkey on our backs. Mr Downer reduced Australian pre-emption ad absurdum when, in a typically bumbling attempt to defuse an issue which should never have arisen, he asserted that it would equally be acceptable for, say, Indonesia, to pre-emptively attack Australian territory, were there a terrorist threat to Indonesia which our Government was not acting to defuse. (Let us hope that the existence in Australia of, for example groups, which support independence for West Papua is never taken as a casus belli by any future Jakarta regime.)

In any event, the unsettling effect of our advocacy of pre-emption was compounded at the 2004 Vientiane ASEAN meeting when the Prime Minister refused to consider Australian accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). This treaty, as its title suggests, commits adherents to respect each other's territories and to settle any disputes peacefully, either through mechanisms contained in the treaty itself or through the United Nations.

Later amendments made the treaty open to non-ASEAN signatures. Among others, both Japan and South Korea have acceded to it. It is noteworthy that both are allies of the United States, so that suggestions that Washington may not wish Australia to sign are, if not implausible, an indicator just how feral the neo-conservative regime in Washington has become. In any event, seen in the context of Howard's pre-emption doctrine, Australian reluctance to sign this harmless document could only have the most sinister implications.

Indeed, not long after the Vientiane meeting it began to appear as if the Government's goal of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with ASEAN might yet founder on the rock of our refusal to sign the ASEAN TAC. Should ASEAN make accession to the treaty a precondition of an FTA, Canberra may yet find itself in a strait-jacket of its own making.

All that, however, is at least placed in abeyance by the promptitude, magnitude and effectiveness of Australia's response, both public and private, to the tsunami disaster. On this occasion there can be no doubt that the Government has got something right. In particular, the decision to offer very substantial aid directly to Indonesia, bypassing the inefficiencies of the UN, is praiseworthy. There is little doubt that the Australian response will earn us some much-needed regional goodwill. It would be churlish to speculate on the extent to which the Government and its advisors took such matters into consideration in shaping its response; in any event, the fact of the response and the many lives it will save or help rebuild, remains.

There have been very few occasions on which I have thought this Government has crafted effective policy towards the South-East Asian region; for the most part it has been insensitive if not actually offensive. But its reaction to the tsunami has been everything one could have hoped for. Can one dare to hope that this opportunity to recast our regional policies, which has come at so terrible a cost, will not be wasted?

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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