East Timor and Asian Security

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Wade Huntley and Peter Hayes, "East Timor and Asian Security", NAPSNet Special Reports, February 23, 2000, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/east-timor-and-asian-security/

February 23, 2000

The following article by Wade Huntley, Nautilus Program Director for 
Global Security, and Peter Hayes, Executive Director, is included in the 
special issue on "East Timor, Indonesia and the World System," of the 
Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 
(http://csf.colorado.edu/bcas/index.html) Volume 31, Nos. 1 and 2.  

For earlier NAPSNet Special Reports on East Timor, please visit:


East Timor and Asian Security

Wade Huntley and Peter Hayes1

The recent crisis in East Timor, sparked by the August 30, 1999, vote for 
independence and culminating in the introduction of the UN-sanctioned 
International Force for East Timor (InterFET), is not simply the latest 
chapter in East Timor's tragic history.  The bloodshed and turmoil in 
East Timor have cast in stark relief the utter inadequacy of existing 
Asia-Pacific security arrangements to cope with regional crises, let 
alone enduring challenges.  Moreover, the world's most recent brush with 
"ethnic cleansing" highlights the increasing importance of vital 
questions concerning the relationship of international security and human 
rights in the post-Cold War world.

US Responsibility

Although important questions remain concerning lines of authority in East 
Timor and in Indonesia, there is little doubt now that primary 
responsibility for the killings of innocent civilians in East Timor in 
the wake of the referendum must be borne by the Indonesian military and 
the militia forces it sanctioned and supported.  Nevertheless, to fully 
appreciate the nature of the international reaction to the crisis, it is 
also vital to highlight the history of international culpability in 
Indonesian repression in East Timor.  

The principal bearer of such broader responsibility is the United States, 
which for decades has consistently prioritized its perceived national 
interest in resisting popular activism and preserving stability in 
Indonesia.  Following this approach, the United States turned a blind eye 
to the massacre of Indonesians in 1965-66, signaling its willingness to 
tolerate the Indonesian military's gross abuse of international human 
rights standards.  Accordingly, the United States tacitly accepted and 
surreptitiously supported Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor 
following the end of Portuguese colonial rule.  Although not explicitly 
condoning the invasion, Washington worked behind the scenes to subvert 
any meaningful United Nations efforts to restrain Indonesian bloodletting 
in the territory.  Subsequent to this de facto validation of the 
invasion, the United States not only willingly overlooked a quarter-
century of harsh Indonesian rule, but also effectively abetted this 
repression by helping arm and train Indonesian forces and by resisting 
efforts to focus international concern on the plight of East Timor's 
people.  US reluctance to support UN preparations to prevent post-
referendum violence is only the most recent example of this complicity.  

As the post-referendum crisis unfolded, many US commentators stressed 
Indonesia's strategic importance to U.S. national interests.  Yet many 
frequently cited factors, such as the strategic importance of Indonesian-
controlled sea lanes, oil in the region, and the position of Indonesia as 
a middle-ranking power in the region, are simply artifice.  For example, 
arguments based on the importance of the Malacca and/or Lombok Straits 
ignore the relative ease and small cost of using alternate sea lanes 
around Australia should turmoil in Indonesia lead to the closing of these 
routes.2  Reliance on such justifications worked only to undermine US 
credibility among the Timorese and their supporters elsewhere in the 

Some arguments as to the need for US caution in approaching this crisis 
do, however, have validity.  In particular, there is a basis for the 
assertion that the United States has lost some of its capacity to 
exercise leverage over the players in Indonesia and East Timor, despite 
the apparent increase of its strategic capabilities.  For example, long-
standing intimate relations between US and Indonesian armed forces have 
waned of late.  Although the Indonesian military continues to regard this 
relationship as symbolically important, its practical value has 
diminished.  Ironically, each severed tie (such as the cessation of joint 
training exercises one week before the referendum) left one less tie that 
the United States could threaten to cut to coerce behavior it desired.  
Thus, the Clinton administration's suspension of all military contact 
with Indonesia (eventually exercised over Pentagon objections) may have 
had much less impact than many asserted on the final decision to allow 
the peacekeeping force to enter East Timor and to pull out Indonesian 

At the economic level, Indonesia is dependent upon the United States and 
Japan for over US$1 billion per month in credit from the IMF, World Bank 
and Asian Development Bank issued after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.  
This circumstance provided the United States and Japan with considerable 
leverage.  However, this leverage was not easy to utilize as a policy 
instrument.  The Indonesian military, directly responsible for the 
violent suppression of East Timor, would have been among the least 
affected segments of Indonesian society by a cutoff of this support.  
During the killing in September, therefore, neither the threat nor the 
implementation of an aid cutoff was as coercive of Indonesia's military 
leadership as many predicted.  Indeed, wholesale economic penalization 
would have punished the country's civilian population for the actions of 
its military, regardless of the attitude most Indonesian citizens held on 
those actions.  In the longer run, wielding this powerful but crude 
weapon risked undermining Indonesian economic recovery, increasing 
poverty, bankruptcy, and social stress, and making it even more difficult 
for the Indonesian political elite to accept moves toward democracy.  
This reality continues to reduce rather than expand American power over 
the Indonesian military's behavior in West Timor or elsewhere in 
Indonesia's far flung provinces. 

Despite these limitations on US power, however, events have demonstrated 
that the United States sets the tone for the course of events in 
Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.  Although initially reluctant to 
directly intervene in East Timor, President Clinton was forced to focus 
on the crisis at the APEC meeting in New Zealand, at which time Australia 
and other states held their strongest leverage on the United States to 
support an international peacekeeping force.  Even in acquiescing to 
pressure from both domestic and international opinion, the Clinton 
administration issued only tepid criticism of Indonesian complicity in 
pre- and post-referendum violence.  Nevertheless, following Clinton's 
direct criticisms, Indonesia quickly accepted an international force for 
East Timor, demonstrating its continuing sensitivity to US views.  The 
international presence that has since taken shape under UN-mandate, which 
includes Australian and Korean troops, an offer of Chinese police, and a 
humanitarian deployment of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force in West 
Timor, certainly bears a US stamp of approval.  

Two conclusions follow from these observations.  First, although the 
exercise of US power in this instance was complicated, opportunities 
nevertheless existed for judicious and targeted action in support of the 
people of East Timor.  For this reason, justifications of inaction on 
grounds that inadequate means of influence existed were as specious as 
justifications putting Indonesian stability ahead of the future of East 
Timor in US national interests.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the continuing centrality of the 
United States to the outcome of the crisis exposed the abject inability 
of other states in the region to act in concert to play this role 
themselves.  What has happened--and what will occur--in East Timor will 
have lasting effects on the course of security structures in the East 
Asia and Pacific region.  The course of events is likely to raise the 
acceptable performance standard for Asian militaries with respect to 
gross violations of human rights.  In this regard, developments have 
added to the post-Kosovo precedents concerning justifications for 
humanitarian intervention and hence are already globally relevant.  

The absence of a pre-existing regional security apparatus capable of 
reacting quickly and effectively to the emerging crisis has already 
imposed costs on all the relevant actors, including the United States, 
Indonesia, and especially the people of East Timor. The ad-hoc cobbling 
together of the Australia-led multinational force, while a significant 
first in achieving broad regional commitment of personnel and funds, has 
not rectified this shortcoming.

Collective Regional Security -- ASEAN and the UN

As the violence in East Timor unfolded in the hours and days immediately 
following the referendum vote, it became apparent that forceful and 
speedy intervention to stop the killing was absolutely urgent.  However, 
there was no international consensus on its form nor on how to implement 

At the time, some argued that first responsibility properly belonged to 
the ASEAN member states, and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).  Walden 
Bello, for example, called upon ASEAN to move "immediately" to form the 
core of a UN peacekeeping mission.3  Viewing US and Australian complicity 
with past repression of East Timor as too great a stain to be 
whitewashed, Bello asserted, "All commitments of armed peacekeepers to 
East Timor must be done under the mandate of the UN and ASEAN."  

Although the force ultimately deployed received a UN mandate, the ASEAN 
states -- as a group or, for the most part, individually -- proved 
incapable of taking on a meaningful leadership roles.  As Richard Tanter 
argued at the onset of the crisis, the ARF "has made no contribution to 
resolving the East Timor conflict in the past, and has little to offer 
now."4  Unlike Europe with its tried and tested institutions for conflict 
avoidance and resolution, he argued, ARF has never addressed the 
violation of human rights as an interstate agenda item.  Instead, the ARF 
and ASEAN set precedents earlier in relation to Burma that kept the 
standards of respect for human rights low rather than pushing them toward 
international norms.  The non-governmental Council for Security 
Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) process that parallels the ARF 
also has failed to address these issues.  Thus, the region lacks basic 
institutions and procedures to address systematic governmental human 
rights abuses, especially when they arise in connection with "internal 
security" problems. 

Subsequent events proved the accuracy of Tanter's diagnosis.  As days 
passed, initiative to form a peacekeeping force fell by default to 
Australia and, behind it, the United States.  Despite Indonesia's 
expressed desire for more active involvement by Asian neighbors other 
than Australia, those states proved fractious and contentious.  Malaysia, 
despite its active role in past UN peacekeeping operations, reacted 
ambivalently as the crisis unfolded, and ultimately bowed out of 
InterFET's first phase of deployment in a pique after UN Secretary 
General Kofi Annan offered Thailand the role of second-in-command behind 
Australia.  Thailand's own involvement has been a source of domestic 
tension, pitting its activist foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan against 
more traditional military and defense elites, and thus muddling somewhat 
the signal sent by Thailand's involvement.  Although the Philippines has 
made a substantial troop commitment to InterFET, it too has blurred its 
message by joining China in opposing the UN Human Rights Commission vote 
to conduct an international inquiry into the East Timor situation. 

In sum, ASEAN member states, individually and collectively, reacted to 
the crisis with contradiction and paralysis.  A principal source of these 
vacillating postures was the resistance to pressures for action given by 
the prevailing norm among these states proscribing "interference in the 
internal affairs of other member states."  Inaction and inertia were 
reinforced by the weakness of pre-existing mechanisms for policy 
coordination and joint action. Additionally, all these states -- like the 
United States -- have been historically very reluctant to endanger vital 
economic, political, and security relations with large and oil-rich 
Indonesia for the sake of opposing human rights abuses in small and poor 
East Timor.

The prospective consequences of ASEAN inaction are sweeping. The call to 
place an effective international peacekeeping force in East Timor 
presented the ARF with an opportunity to establish a future role for 
itself in resolving security dilemmas and other tensions in the region.  
The total inability of the ARF to seize this opportunity effectively 
ceded leadership to the United States, Australia, other allies and 
friends, and the large powers at the UN.  Moreover, this inability also 
ended any notion that the ARF has political leadership in regional 
security dialogues, in relation either to Southeast Asia or to the Asia-
Pacific region as a whole.  In short, the ARF's capacity to function as 
the fulcrum for regional security coordination and dialogue has been 
crippled, and it is unlikely that the ARF or nascent regional 
institutions will regain any major role in security deliberations or 
outcomes in the near future.  With no other meaningful autonomous 
security institutions on the horizon, the path is again clear for big 
powers to contend for hegemony in the region.

Hegemonic Regional Security -- The Role of Australia

In addition to the US role in the East Timor crisis, the role taken up by 
Australia also compels attention.  In particular, the crisis presented a 
specific opportunity for Australian prime minister John Howard to 
redefine Australia's historic approach to Indonesian relations in ways 
that will have significant impact on Australia's foreign policy and on 
regional security relations for years to come.  

Ever since the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942 demonstrated the limits 
of British security guarantees, Australia has faced a tension between its 
Western origins and its Asian geography.  In foreign policy, this tension 
has meant seeking to balance ongoing links to Britain and the United 
States, on the one hand, and developing links to immediate neighbors, on 
the other.  In this context, Australia's relations with Indonesia -- with 
its large population and abundant resources -- has been a central 
challenge to Australian policy-makers.

After the pro-Western Suharto regime took power in the mid-1960s, 
Australian policy-makers worked (with varying success) to maintain close 
ties to the regime, helping ameliorate Australia's underlying foreign 
policy tension at least with respect to Indonesia.  In this context, 
Indonesia's occupation and repressive rule of East Timor was an unwelcome 
irritation.  Although the Whitlam government condemned the invasion and 
Australia became home to many East Timorese independence activists, 
policy-makers then and after retained their perception of the importance 
of sustaining close ties to Jakarta. 

Beginning in 1983, the Labour governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating 
increased efforts to improve Indonesia-Australia ties, and sought 
specifically to build ties to the Indonesian military.  These efforts led 
in 1985 to Australia's formal recognition of East Timor's incorporation 
within Indonesia, and culminated with the December 1995 signing of the 
"Agreement on Maintaining Security" (AMS).  The AMS, negotiated in secret 
and insulated from parliamentary oversight, sparked controversy.  
Supporters heralded the agreement for strengthening Australia's 
relationship to its most powerful neighbor, with beneficial effects for 
relations throughout the Asian region.  Critics -- including opposition 
leader John Howard -- condemned wording in the AMS widely understood to 
oblige Australia to refrain from pressuring Indonesia on East Timor and 
other irredentist issues.

Within months of reaching the AMS accord, Australia's Labour Party lost 
power in national elections, and Liberal Party leader John Howard became 
prime minister.  Although initially the new government affirmed support 
for the AMS, this approach vied with the party's historical aversion to 
Asian-oriented foreign policy.  As time passed, rising turmoil in 
Indonesia  --  the impact of the Asian financial crisis and the 
subsequent fall of the Suharto regime  --  eroded perceptions of 
Indonesia's powerful position, engendering instead the specter of a 
disintegrating or "Balkanizing" region and raising questions as to the 
wisdom of emphasizing close ties to Jarkata.5  Thus, the brewing crisis 
in East Timor presented Howard with a welcome opportunity for a dramatic 
break from his predecessors' approaches to relations with Indonesia.  

With Indonesian President B. J. Habibie inching toward concessions on 
East Timor, the Howard government decided to press the issue.  On January 
12, 1999, the Australian government proclaimed support for autonomy and 
an eventual vote on self-determination in East Timor, abrogating the 
implicit proscription entailed by the AMS.6  Only fifteen days later, 
Habibie made his historic announcement that the East Timorese would be 
allowed to vote to choose, in effect, between autonomy and independence.  

The Indonesian military's direct responsibility for the subsequent 
violence in East Timor demonstrated its rejection of Habibie's 
acquiescence to some form of East Timorese self-determination.  Hence, 
the Howard government's decision to pressure Habibie on East Timor has 
met with criticism for failing to anticipate  --  and perhaps even 
facilitating  --  the Indonesian military's predictable response.  
However, the Howard government's motivations for pressing the issue at 
this time reached beyond East Timor itself.  The deteriorating situation 
in East Timor also offered the Howard government an opportunity to put 
into action its pro-Western vision of Australia's future regional role, 
by adopting a more forceful position toward Indonesia and positioning 
Australia to play a prominent role in resolving the situation.  

As violence in the province spread, and as previously-cultivated ties to 
the Indonesian military proved ineffective as a tool to induce its 
restraint, Australia became an early and active advocate of UN 
intervention.  In the wake of the August 30 vote (in which 78% supported 
independence), the murderous and destructive rampage of TNI-supported 
pro-integrationist militias made immediate action paramount.  In this 
context, with no coherent regional security structure in place to offer 
credible alternative authority, the UN Security Council approved the 
formation of InterFET under Australian leadership.

The broader opportunity and mandate with which the Howard government has 
viewed Australia's role in InterFET became clear with Howard's September 
enunciation of a new strategic doctrine.  Howard's vision would have 
Australia not only adopt a more "active" role in Asian security matters, 
but do so as a "deputy" to the United States and a broader agenda of 
Western-oriented interests.  The approach, quickly dubbed the "Howard 
Doctrine," clearly casts Australia's InterFET role not as a unique 
necessity, but as a model for the future.  The doctrinal shift was 
accompanied by predictable calls for substantial increases in Australian 
defense spending to match the new activist role.  

Some commentators have remarked that the "Howard Doctrine" represents a 
dramatic new orientation in Australia's approach to regional security 
relations.  This observation holds only in regard to the extent to which 
the approach dispenses with efforts to accommodate Indonesia.  In terms 
of the projected affinity with the United States, the approach taps a 
deep vein of thinking that has existed in Australia since the end of 
World War II.  As the Cold War dawned, Australian defense planners sought 
specific security guarantees from the United States.  Because the 1951 
ANZUS treaty only partly satisfied these aims, many analysts have since 
avowed that Australian "loyalty" to the United States, both in the Asia-
Pacific and elsewhere in the world, would cement an affinity of interests 
that would secure US support in time of crisis.  Howard's offer to have 
Australia act as "deputy" in the region (while the United States acts, 
presumably, as "sheriff" to the world) is simply the latest incarnation 
of this long-standing ambition among Australia's most pro-Western defense 

The Howard Doctrine, then, is an effort to take advantage of the crisis 
in East Timor to move away from reliance on collective security 
mechanisms and adopt a more militaristic and hegemonic role in regional 
security relations, with US backing.  As a security policy for Australia, 
the deepest flaw in this approach remains what it has always been:  US 
and Australian interests are not always convergent, and are not made more 
convergent merely by Australian fidelity.  In the mid-1980s, when New 
Zealand's anti-nuclear policy threatened US nuclear weapons postures 
throughout the Asia-Pacific, Pentagon decision-makers did not hesitate to 
jettison New Zealand as an ANZUS partner.  In 1999, the Howard Doctrine 
rests on the assumption that the United States will not subject Australia 
to a similar fate.  

Such an assumption is enormously risky.  Anti-Australian sentiment and 
violence has emerged throughout Indonesia, and relations with Australia's 
other northern neighbors have suffered.  If the intervention in East 
Timor leads to direct conflict with the Indonesian military or indirect 
sparring via the militia, then the operation in East Timor could bring 
out instability orchestrated from Jakarta on the Irian Jaya-Papua New 
Guinea border -- Australia's worst military nightmare in many respects.  
In such a deteriorating relationship, the United States would have some 
very difficult choices to make between Jakarta and Canberra.  There is no 
guarantee that the sheriff would support the deputy.  Hence, for 
Australia, the East Timor situation is now extremely delicate and 

Conversely, successful cooperation between the Indonesian military and 
InterFET's forces to disband militias and repatriate refugees from West 
Timor could allow Australia the option of reconstructing its relationship 
with Jakarta in more positive ways.  Such success would also work to 
reinforce the Howard Doctrine's premise of a de facto division of labor 
between Australia and the United States, wherein Australia would lead 
interventions into small hot spots threatening regional instability, 
while the United States would involve itself supportively and less 
overtly.  Developing such a relationship might also help Australia push 
the United States to pay its UN dues, now in massive arrears and 
threatening the United Nations with bankruptcy.  The InterFET 
intervention in East Timor gives Australia leverage on the United States 
for the first time, as Australia risks picking up a multi-billion-dollar 
tab for the cost of UN peacekeeping forces and administration over the 
coming years. 

Nevertheless, even this more successful realization of the Howard 
Doctrine bodes ill for regional security outlooks more broadly.  The 
deputization of Australia will do little to relieve the onus of US 
hegemony that will inevitably follow heavy-handed unilateral actions in 
response to regional security turmoil.  Instead, an aggressive proxy 
relationship of this nature is likely to aggravate Australia's relations 
with its immediate neighbors for years to come and undermine efforts to 
build genuine collective security mechanisms in the region.  Only if 
Australia can parlay its self-defined role as US deputy into a lever 
capable of inducing greater active US support for building such 
mechanisms  --  a very big "if"  --  will the Howard Doctrine prove to be 
a positive contribution to regional peace and security.

Conclusion: The Imperative of Intervention

The need to end the reign of terror over the people of East Timor 
provided the strongest justification for constitution of InterFET.  The 
imperative for intervention, in terms of the threat to human life and the 
social fabric of East Timor, was striking and clear. 

The political clarity and potency of this imperative, in the face of 
traditional appeals to sterile definitions of national interest, 
highlights a critical new feature emerging throughout international 
relations: the pivotal role that can be played by civil society armed 
with new technologies of communication.  The presence of many non-
Indonesian witnesses to events in East Timor, including international 
civilians, activist groups and UN officials, made it impossible to 
conceal the massacres being directed from Jakarta.  Access by independent 
eye witnesses to instantaneous communication media -- cell phones, 
satellite transmissions, Internet-based networking -- made it possible to 
generate widespread public awareness and conviction in "real-time;" that 
is, while such sweeping consensus could still make a difference.  Appeals 
to abstract conceptions of security interest could not stand up to the 
force of sheer awareness of the underlying human realities.  Public 
opinion forced the hands of the leaders of the great powers, who would 
have preferred to turn a blind eye to these realities and walk away from 
their consequences.
The importance of the role played by civil society and communication 
technologies is a new complexity characterizing the post-Cold War world.7  
Policymakers' choices are not quite so simple as they once were.  The 
United States, in particular, can no longer simply trade off its 
commitment to promoting human rights for maintenance of its own security.  
Rather, these are now inextricable elements of a common problem.  In the 
post-Cold War era, world politics is no longer easily segregated into 
"high" and "low" spheres, within the former of which only "hard 
interests" are relevant.  Today, the human and civil rights status of 
individuals and groups at every level of political organization has 
become the most vital issue infusing international security throughout 
the world.  Balancing justifications for humanitarian international 
action and respect for national sovereignty now presents the most vexing 
questions for contemporary international law.

In this sense, the crisis in East Timor is archetypical of the future.  
As international crises rooted in humanitarian concerns increasingly 
arise -- as they inevitably will -- concerned individuals will play ever-
greater roles in bringing brutal realities to international audiences.  
Capable powers must then be prepared to react very rapidly in ways that 
maximize international support if they are to satisfy both the 
humanitarian imperatives and security challenges such crises will pose.  
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of East Timorese have had to pay with 
their lives for this lesson to be learned. 
The Nautilus Institute has responded to the urgent crisis in East Timor 
by compiling unique assessments and analyses by key experts from 
throughout the world, in an effort to promote and broaden debate over 
appropriate responses to the crisis. Many of these analyses were produced 
specifically for the Nautilus Institute.  Between September 7 and October 
25, 1999, the Nautilus Institute distributed over a dozen analyses, press 
releases and media overviews through the Northeast Asia Peace and 
Security Network (NAPSNet); links to this material can be found online at 
http://www.nautilus.org/napsnet/sr/East_Timor/index.html. The institute 
will continue to solicit and disseminate analyses and sponsor related 
activities as long as the crisis continues.  We welcome all responses to 
this endeavor.
1 Lyuba Zarsky, Tim Savage and Jason Hunter also contributed 
indispensably to the conception and argument of this article. 
2 John Noer and David Gregory, Chokepoints:  Maritime Economic Concerns 
in Southeast Asia, Center for Naval Analyses, National Defense University 
Press, Washington DC, 1996.
3 See Walden Bello, "East Timor: An ASEAN-UN Solution," NAPSNet Special 
Report 10, September 10, 1999, published at: 
4 Richard Tanter, "The East Timor Disaster," NAPSNet Special Report 1, 
September 7, 1999, published at: 
5 James Cotton, "East Timor and Australia: Twenty-five years of the 
policy debate," NAPSNet Special Report 18, September 21, 1999, published 
at: http://www.nautilus.org/napsnet/sr/East_Timor/index.html.
6 This announcement included revelation that Howard had written to 
Habibie the preceding December 19, urging support of this course of 
7 See the essays on-line at http://www.infoaxioms.org, a study site 
maintained by the Nautilus Institute on the impact of new information 
technology on US foreign policy making.

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