China supported the U.N. Security Council resolution clearing the way for the deployment of an International Force for East Timor and also offered to send a civilian police contingent to be part of the U.N. peacemaking operation. Given China’s advocacy of the principle of noninterference in internal affairs (based on its adherence to the 19th-century notion of state sovereignty), observers have described Beijing’s response to the East Timor crisis as “intriguing.”

However, a deeper analysis of China’s broader strategic objectives and of the “big picture” that is the fast-changing Asian security environment shows that, far from marking a significant departure from earlier Chinese policy, Beijing’s response to the Indonesian crisis represents nothing but the continuation of its Asia policy.

By allowing the United Nations to authorize the force for East Timor, but only after Indonesia caved in to international pressure, China has ensured the primacy of the U.N. Security Council in dealing with world crises, a principle overridden by NATO’s operation in Kosovo, without compromising the principle of nonintervention in the affairs of sovereign states. China would certainly not allow such intervention in Tibet or Taiwan, nor would Russia countenance external intervention in Dagestan or Chechnya.

But China is no stranger to peacekeeping efforts. Since committing itself to the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, the country has also been involved in U.N. operations in Kuwait, Palestine, Liberia and the Western Sahara. It is apparently keen to enhance its image as a good international citizen and an active player in regional security affairs.

This contrasts sharply with Japan’s low-key response to East Timor, which critics say once again exposed a lack of leadership in regional security affairs but which Japanese officials attribute to the need to remember the wider picture in Indonesia, particularly its shaky transition to a higher level of democracy.

China’s competition with Taiwan for the allegiance of newly emerging states in southern Europe, Africa and Asia also undoubtedly played a part. Beijing wanted to ensure that an independent but bankrupt East Timor will commit itself to recognizing China and not succumb to Taiwan’s “dollar diplomacy.”

China stands to benefit from the Indonesian crisis. Former Indonesian President Suharto had long incurred Beijing’s wrath for his violent suppression of the Indonesian Communist Party following China’s meddling in Indonesian domestic politics in the mid-1960s and subsequent pro-West tilt in foreign policy. Nor could Beijing forget that the Suharto regime began and ended with large-scale repression of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.

Strategically, Indonesia (along with Vietnam) had long been seen — for example, in Australia — as a bulwark against Chinese influence and expansion in Southeast Asia. For Beijing, the rupture in relations between Jakarta and Canberra is a welcome development. The primary motivation of the now defunct Australia-Indonesia security agreement signed in 1995 was to foster closer strategic engagement between the U.S. alliance network in the Asia-Pacific and Indonesia so as to ensure, as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating put it, that Australia and Indonesia are not drawn “into the Chinese orbit.”

Another reason was Jakarta’s concern over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, extending as far as Indonesia’s gas-rich Natuna Islands, which guard the eastern entrance to the Malacca Strait.

The security agreement was thus designed in part to resist China’s strategic push to enforce its claim to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

This latest development has come at a time when the hopes of the Association of South-East Asian Nations of evolving into a regional counterweight to China lie shattered. Unlike Japan, which prefers a strong, stable and united Indonesia because it straddles the straits linking the critical Pacific and Indian Oceans sea lanes, China believes that a weak, divided and isolated Indonesia serves Beijing’s strategic interests well. As a counter to the U.S.-led alliances, China is also actively dangling the carrot of economic, military and diplomatic support (in the form of its U.N. Security Council veto) to bring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand closer to its world view. China’s economic links with Southeast Asian countries have significant strategic implications. Beijing may not relish the idea of an independent East Timor becoming too dependent on Australia or the United States — or Portugal, for that matter.

Diplomatically, China stands to gain much from this weakening of regional cohesion at a time when Beijing has embarked on a concerted drive to win friends under the banner of “Asia for Asians” or “Asian solutions to Asian problems.” Anti-Western sentiment has recently triggered demonstrations and protests in the region. If the Indonesia state starts unraveling in the aftermath of East Timor’s secession, Australia in particular and the West in general will be seen as having contributed to its dismemberment. The unease in Asian capitals about Australia’s motives in taking a lead role in East Timor, as well as the so-called Howard Doctrine of Australia acting as the U.S.’ “deputy sheriff” in the region could be exploited to drive a wedge between ASEAN countries and the Australia/U.S. relationship — to Beijing’s advantage. Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s view that “Asian countries are capable of looking after the region themselves” should therefore resonate strongly with Beijing’s mandarins.

The case of East Timor’s is symptomatic of the growing demands for autonomy or independence based on ethnoreligious nationalism. This rising interventionist impulse does not portend well for the future of multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural states. It encourages the waging of proxy wars and terrorism. Already, emboldened by U.N. intervention in East Timor, the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and Ambon have stepped up their separatist movements. Most Asian countries are apprehensive about the precedent East Timor may set. Malaysia’s Sabah and the Muslim minority areas of the Philippines could be next. This would trigger fresh refugee flows and perhaps wider conflict in Asia.

Before further fueling the fires of discontent, the question that the U.N. and the West in general should ponder is whether they have the resources and the will to intervene in Asia’s trouble spots. History shows that external interventions and partitions more often than not tend to complicate conflict resolution — witness the Balkans, Ireland, India and Cyprus. One message, however, is crystal clear: Don’t mess with the West unless you’re a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council (Russia and China), or allied with one (as Myanmar and North Korea are with China) or possess nuclear weapons (India).

In short, Beijing’s response to the East Timor crisis presents an interesting case study in Chinese statecraft. A mix of diplomatic flexibility and strategic realism serves simultaneously to promote China’s desire to maintain U.N. legitimacy, enhance its image as a responsible power and and increase its influence in Southeast Asia.

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