The U.N.-authorized humanitarian intervention in East Timor might provide the model for ad hoc coalitions among democracies in East Asia — based on the U.S. alliance structure, supported by Washington, but not requiring U.S. combat forces. Australia is leading the International Force for East Timor. Australia will provide some 4,500 troops out of an estimated 7,500.

Japan, which has vital strategic and economic interests in Indonesia, will be expected to provide more than money once INTERFET moves beyond its peace-enforcing phase into peacekeeping. South Korea is showing the way for Japan. For the first time, South Korea is sending forces to a U.N. operation. Its unit of 419 soldiers will include 201 elite combat troops.

Military and political problems lurk. Indonesia, seeking to hand over responsibility for security in East Timor, is trying to make Australia accountable for what happens there. Propaganda claims have already been made about Australian forces killing Timorese. Indonesia is also pursuing Serb-like efforts to divide and rule among the multinational forces.

INTERFET’s rules of engagement are robust, as they need to be. But the ASEAN members fear that Australian troops might be too gung-ho and, as a result, ASEAN forces might be involved in killing Indonesians. That’s one reason that Australians will especially welcome the tough South Koreans, who are not members of ASEAN and who were valued partners in the Vietnam War.

The United States has stepped up pressure on Jakarta to disarm the anti-independence militias. By deploying an amphibious assault ship, with 900 marines aboard, the U.S. is backing up an ally.

Australian politicians have not matched the caliber of their soldiers. The U.S. will be concerned because leaders on both sides of the aisle have allowed East Timor to dominate Australia’s policy toward Indonesia. Prime Minister John Howard also seems preoccupied with dismantling the legacy of his predecessor, Paul Keating. In 1995, Keating forged an unprecedented security alignment with Indonesia that was designed in large part to resist China’s strategic pressure in the South China Sea. But Howard denounced the agreement after the post-poll violence in East Timor, prompting Indonesian President B.J. Habibie to abrogate it.

For Washington, the sharp downturn in relations between Indonesia and Australia is a strategic complication. And although the U.S. will welcome increases in Australia’s defense spending, these come at the price of being linked to concerns about Indonesia. Lost in the debate in Australia is the recognition that Indonesia has represented a threat in the past because of its weakness, not its strength.

Australia, by courting Indonesian hostility, increased its strategic need for U.S. support. That may have informed the so-called Howard Doctrine, in which Howard seemed to want to play the role of deputy sheriff in the region. While he didn’t use the term himself, he did not contradict the journalist who did. Widespread derision ensued, including from Bangkok. The Thais concede that ASEAN has proved impotent in this crisis in its backyard, and are contributing the deputy commander of INTERFET. But China is wooing Bangkok, and Howard has played into the hands of critics who portray Australia as bent on white imperialism.

Australia was lucky to get support from the U.S. in East Timor. Since the Vietnam War, Australia has pursued a minimalist approach to its alliance commitments, reluctant to commit forces to “out of area” operations. During the Persian Gulf War, for example, Australia sent two frigates and an oiler, and had the temerity to call it a task force. The then prime minister, Robert Hawke, shrewdly calculated that if he got in early, he wouldn’t have to do much. During the 1995-6 Taiwan Strait crisis, Australia’s defense minister made robust criticisms of China. But words cost little, and Australia has been pursuing defense on the cheap, with defense spending now only 1.8 percent of GDP.

If Australia wants to continue to enjoy the benefits that its alliance affords, the U.S. will expect it to develop a force structure less configured for defense of the continent and the so-called “sea-air gap” to Australia’s north. Australia will need naval and amphibious assets that will allow for meaningful participation in allied operations far from its shores. The Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait come readily to mind.

For its part, Japan needs to amend its 1992 peacekeeping law, particularly because Indonesia would welcome a Japanese contribution to peacekeeping in East Timor. So far, China has stolen a march on Japan by promising to send civilian police. But Japan and Australia should be careful lest Indonesia seek to play them off against each other.

The U.N.-authorized intervention in East Timor has done well so far, but things could go badly wrong. The Indonesian-backed militias could harass INTERFET from West Timor, where they hold thousands of refugees as hostages. If that happens, Australia, its resources thinly stretched, might start to complain of inadequate support. Tensions in the U.S.-Australia alliance could provide easy pickings for China, always keen on alliance-busting. Public opinion in Australia, now strongly in favor of INTERFET, might sour if casualties are incurred, and no end seems in sight.

At worst, East Timor could prove the catalyst for the unraveling of Indonesia, a multiethnic and far-flung archipelago. Indonesia, like the old South Vietnam, might prove unwilling or unable to help itself. If that proves to be the case, no amount of outside support can make much difference.

Such gloomy outcomes are by no means inevitable. Relieved of the running sore of East Timor, Indonesia now has the opportunity to become the newest member of East Asia’s democratic fraternity.

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