SYDNEY — The need for closer links between Tokyo and Canberra has never been clearer than in recent days: Bloody fighting in East Timor, humanitarian rescue near the Java volcano site, economic basket cases in the South Pacific . . . The case for regional cooperation grows more urgent daily.

The latest summit at Okinawa of Pacific Island Forum officials brought welcome assurances of coordinated aid from Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Even there, an undercurrent of suspicion was apparent. Has Tokyo its own agenda based on its perceived need to counteract growing Beijing influence in the South Pacific?

Now Canberra is lobbying South Pacific states such as the Marshall Islands to head off a Japanese attempt at stacking a prowhaling lobby at the upcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

Meanwhile, the immediate disaster zone, East Timor, is burning. Once again nearby neighbor Australia is first in with an armed police force and food supplies. And still there is little international consensus on how this poor young nation can be helped over the longer term to gain stable self-government.

Armed Australian troops are rounding up gangs of machete-wielding youths who have terrorized the capital, Dili. Food supplies are being flown in from nearby Darwin for tens of thousands of homeless refugees sheltering from the crazed mobs in a few still-safe sanctuaries such as churches.

In New York, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is hand-wringing over the “really sad and tragic” fact that “we have to relive this experience again in East Timor.” Nor can he predict the success of a planned U.N. mission there designed to help organize elections next year. Still less can he say how long the Australia-led peacekeeping troops will have to do guard duty there.

Meanwhile, a sharply divided Dili government has been fighting its same old power struggle that has plagued the half-island state since an Australia-led international police force put down street fighting in 1999. That U.N. peace mission was supposed to organize a transition to self-rule to replace an earlier period of bloody rule by Jakarta. Almost 200,000 people died during and after the bloody war of independence from Indonesia.

Some 3,000 Australian soldiers, backed by 220 Malaysian, 160 New Zealand and 120 Portuguese troops, rushed to Dili after 50,000 residents fled their homes to escape the first outbreak of the most recent violence. The U.N.’s special envoy there, Sukehiro Hasegawa, warned that more reinforcements might be necessary to stop the bloodshed. His warning was soon confirmed by a series of horrible deaths still to be counted.

Only hours before the first troop arrival a mother and her five children were burned to death in their suburban home. Frightened neighbors said later they were unable to help the woman, a school teacher whose husband is related to Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato. This is typical of the pattern of “payback” attacks and intimidation.

In another revenge attack nine police officers died as they tried to surrender. They were shot as they came out of a mob-surrounded police station with their hands up.

The abiding enmity between tribal groups in this divided country shows how difficult it will be to achieve peace. Army Maj. Alfredo Reinado is a case in point. He led 600 rebels into the hills behind the ravaged Dili to keep up his fight. Yet this soldier was trained in Australia. He did three months of a yearlong defense course. Canberra has a huge task in selecting future trainees, let alone knowing which politician to back.

Politically the country is split between Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s Fretelin Party and the opposition Democratic Party supported by President Xanana Gusmao. Alkatiri, a Marxist-Leninist thinker who spent years in exile in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, survived a move to unseat him by insisting on a show of hands instead of a secret ballot. Alkatiri, a Muslim in this largely Christian country, furiously argued against calling in Australian troops to quell riots. He called on his opponent, President Xanana Gusmao, to respect the constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste (East Timor).

President Gusmao, a charismatic but ailing leader, reasserted enough authority to successfully call in U.N. intervention. A former Fretelin member until 1987, he is seen as the man most likely to reunite the country, still divided between the Lorosae (eastern-born Timorese) and their western kinsfolk, the Loromonu.

It was a mutiny by 300 Timorese troops protesting ethnic bias that sparked the first riots. Politicians dithered, the police lost control and terrorized citizens fled to the hills and into churches. Gangs of hooligans wielding knives and rifles settled old tribal scores, killing in their frenzy as 65,000 hungry people slowly starved. Charity worker Tim Costello, brother of Australian Treasurer Peter Costello, complained about armed thugs raiding international safe houses to steal rice.

In Canberra, Prime Minister John Howard needed all his cool to hold back his exasperation. “We have a delicate path to tread,” he said on radio. “We want to help — we are a regional power. But I respect the independence of East Timor.”

Warning taxpayers and families of peacekeepers that Australia is “in for the long haul,” Howard would not rule out a new multinational mission to rebuild institutions in East Timor — something like the Australia-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands on the other side of New Guinea. Not to mention the ongoing (and frustrating) aid Canberra pours into Papua New Guinea.

“Thankfully, Indonesia is relaxed about Australian forces returning to their former territory,” editorialized the national daily newspaper, The Australian. “With the support of the U.S. and the U.N., Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia are on a good cause on behalf of the East Timorese and for maintaining regional stability. The alternative — a civil war destroying what little economic activity the country now has and a population reduced to femine — is too awful to imagine.”

That reference to “little economic activity” awakens memories of a long drawn-out deal between the two neighbors to tap huge oil resources under Timor Strait. A verbal battle over which country owns a majority of riches in the maritime territory has been settled, but it will be years before the coming bounty of East Timor’s only lucrative resource starts flowing to its people.

The corporate-political fight for oil earnings lingers in the minds of a group of young Timorese poets who recently came to Sydney for a writers’ festival. They likened the Australian troops in East Timor to Americans in Iraq, in it for the oil.

“It is suspicious and questionable,” objected poet and broadcaster Vonia Veira, 23, from Dili. “I am scared it is less about East Timor’s security than Australia’s security and interests.”

As British satirist George Orwell once wrote — don’t expect beggars to be grateful. Or as the more recent saying goes — no good deed goes unpunished.

Still, just as Washington knows what it’s like to act as world policeman, so must Canberra learn regionally. But how far to go for how long? One Canberra watcher, Paul Kelly, admits the final political outcome in Dili defies prediction.

Kelly says the Howard government is devising a dual strategy, military and civil, for East Timor’s future. “Australia doesn’t want to outsource the military role to the U.N. or any other nation,” he says. “For the police role, however, Australia wants to see East Timor’s police reinforced from within, from other nations or by a new U.N. police force”

On the civil side, Kelly foresees Australia seeking a new U.N. resolution to vest a greater responsibility within the U.N. for East Timor’s civil infrastructure.

These are tasks that region-conscious Japan may well wish to share.

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