SYDNEY — To hear some Southeast Asian leaders sound off lately, a casual observer might suspect Australia is about to invade Indonesia or Malaysia or even the Philippines. Such is the folly of listening to “news” as whipped up by audience-boosting television channels fed by headline-grabbing politicians.

Admittedly, this is the silly season when the media grab wildly for “hard news” while their usual sources are relaxing into end-of-year parties. Silly? It doesn’t come much sillier when Southeast Asia and Australia start trading insults over pre-emptive military strikes and who is harboring the most terrorists.

That said, Australian Prime Minister John Howard must be feeling an urgent need for a yearend break. Our ever-so-correct leader has put foot in mouth and, worse to his critics, appears to have no intention of withdrawing it.

What began as a benign Sunday morning chat on television between Howard and veteran Canberra interviewer Laurie Oakes was turned into an international incident. The wily prime minister should have remembered that any casual remark he makes during these tense times about Iraq and al-Qaeda is capable of being turned into an official statement of Australia’s stance on revising the United Nations charter.

What he said in reply to Oakes’ question was quite equivocal, full of “ifs”: “If you believed somebody was going to launch an attack against your country, either of a conventional kind or of a terrorist kind, and you had the capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity, then you would have to use it.”

Suddenly all hell broke loose. The media in Southeast Asia picked up the quotation and ran it as a declaration of unilateral intent.

“We will hold this as an attempt to wage war against the government and the country if Australia pursues its intention to attack any country to tackle terrorism,” declared Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. “We will take action according to our country’s laws.”

Canberra is quite accustomed to outbursts from the perennial Malaysian leader. Over the years his throwaway remarks at press conferences about perceived Australian sins get the usual response: With friends like Mahathir, who needs enemies? Even former Prime Minister Paul Keating dubbed him “recalcitrant,” Canberra has come to expect a regular vocal rap on the knuckles from its friend in Kuala Lumpur.

But Jakarta is another matter. Ever since Australia’s lead in the East Timor breakaway, and more particularly since the Bali bombing followed by a hunt for Indonesian terrorists, relations with Jakarta have been sensitive.

So when Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto warned that his forces would respond accordingly if Australia invaded Indonesian territory under the pretext of fighting terrorism, Australian diplomats held their collective breath. “We will not stand by should they attack,” the general announced after attending a Cabinet meeting with President Megawati Sukarnoputri. “There is no way Australia can come here and launch an attack even if they say it is against terrorists.”

The thought of Australia with a population of 20 million even considering an attack on Indonesia’s 220-plus million people is ridiculous. But one doesn’t say such a thing, at least in Canberra. Not when you’re waiting for the next blast from some offended xenophobic country. Sure enough, it came.

From Manila, Sen. Ralph Recto let fly: “Howard is not a Crocodile Dundee who can treat the whole of Asia as an extension of the Australian outback. No country will ever issue a hunting permit to Australian forces. Asia is not a place where Howard can go on a safari.”

Singapore’s blast was muted at government level. But The Straits Times, the government-controlled daily newspaper, could not resist lecturing: “When a country announces its willingness to launch an action against targets in a friendly nation, with no warning given to or permission sought from the other government, it should expect to face a barrage of criticism.”

Maybe Australia should accept all this criticism as some perverted form of compliment. Rarely do our regional neighbors bother to shower our dazed heads with such verbal fireworks. Now we appreciate how Washington must feel daily.

Back home, Howard remains unrepentant. His unguarded venture into the supersensitive politics of Southeast Asia has to be measured against such local humdrum issues as the worst national drought in 100 years and bush fires burning dozens of house in his hometown of Sydney.

Stung by the Howard calm, opposition leader Simon Crean, sinking to a new low in voter popularity and desperate for a headline, could not resist. “Howard has the responsibility to apologize, to ring directly the heads of government of those countries, and to clarify that he has no intention of supporting pre-emptive strikes against them,” he told Parliament.

But Howard, always adept in reading the public mood, explained: “I was asserting a position any Australian would want their prime minister to assert.”

That provoked chants from Malaysia’s rent-a-crowd protesters outside the Australian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and a taunt from the Malaysian Foreign Ministry spokesman: “Howard’s failure to back down is yet another example of his arrogance.”

The brouhaha also comes at an unfortunate time domestically as well as regionally. Australians are still smarting over the death of 90 holidaying countrymen in the Bali bombing carried out by an Indonesian group of Islamic extremists. They still recall the help Indonesians gave Middle Eastern “refugees” to enter this country illegally. Anger among older Australians against newly revealed Islamic extremists and their terrorist cells here grows daily.

That mood and his resolve to root out any domestic terrorist threat still exercises Howard in his response to criticism from largely Muslim countries. And he is well aware that this vast open country with its very open democratic system must live for a long time with neighbors “up there.”

What Howard was getting at — and what Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has been hurriedly explaining to the neighbors — is that Australia is still considering supporting changes to United Nations regulations allowing nations to launch pre-emptive strikes against terrorists on foreign soil. What he did not make clear is the priority of first seeking regional and government-to-government cooperation.

This is what the local press has been hammering in its criticism of the “Howard gaffe.” “Any suggestion of arrogance on Australia’s part, such as a perceived disrespect for sovereignty, or the assumption Canberra is peddling Washington’s strategic priorities in Southeast Asia, could further fan anti-Western sentiment,” warned the Sydney Morning Herald. “Cooperation with regional governments must be Australia’s first priority on confronting the terrorist threat.”

However, that necessity is being balanced in the public mind by reports that Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian terrorist group, was thwarted from its plans to attack the Sydney Olympic Games two years ago. The reports, since confirmed by local security experts, surfaced in The Straits Times.

Jemaah Islamiyah, known as JI, now appears to have been set up here in 1996 as Mantiqi (district) 4, covering Australia and Indonesia’s Irian Jaya province, sometimes called West Papua. Its members include Indonesian permanent residents here and white Australians. A frequent visitor here has been Abu Bakar Bashir, the Muslim cleric and JI spiritual leader arrested by Jakarta as a suspected terrorist. Another was Hambali, a cleric and member of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

Against this unfurling background, Howard is playing the continuing controversy close to his chest. What he is getting in response is criticism from home and abroad. But as any leader worth the title knows, that goes with the territory.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.