English Sunday, November 10, 2002  

'Australia paying for neglecting Asia'

Sydney, Australia (Reuters): Australia is now paying the price for neglecting its ties with Asia as it fights the "war on terror" in its backyard with a surge in resentment at its vigorous pro-U.S. stance, analysts warned on Friday.

A day after conservative Prime Minister John Howard and his foreign and defense ministers issued public assurances, from Tokyo to Sydney, that Asian ties were sound, former diplomats, politicians, analysts and the media all warned they were wrong.

Some called on Howard to personally head to Asia, especially Jakarta, to limit the damage from raids on the homes of Muslims after bomb blasts killed more than 180 people, including around 90 Australians, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Diplomatic relations reach boiling point read one headline in the Australian Financial Review newspaper on Friday.

The paper said that "behind a public facade of diplomatic restraint", the government was angry at Asian criticism of the raids when it would have expected sympathy and support.

Indonesian news magazine Tempo ran a cartoon this week of a giant kangaroo carrying a rifle yelling "Are you Moslem?" to a frightened man in Indonesian type dress. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Muslims were unsafe in Australia.

Australia has also been rebuked by Southeast Asian nations for issuing travel warnings against regional destinations.

Inside Indonesia newsletter editor Gerry Van Klinken said the backlash could have been tempered through diplomacy.

"It should have been possible to dispel that maybe by forewarning them (in Jakarta),"Van Klinken told Reuters. But he doubted Australia possessed the necessary diplomatic sensitivity, saying its ties with Asia were now "distant" because of the government's "self-centered" view of regional diplomacy.

The Australian newspaper editorial on Friday reflected the country's shock at being criticized for trying to protect its people after the bombs ripped through Kuta Beach nightclubs on Oct. 12, killing and maiming scores of Australians.

But the paper said the reaction was a result of misunderstanding, caused by Howard's failure to engage Asia.

That was highlighted by Australia's inability last week to get closer to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. the region's most significant body. Canberra has struggled in vain for years to be admitted to the organization.

"Our Asian relationships have been dangerously neglected during the Howard years...," the paper said. "Our relationship with Indonesia is now near fracture on a number of questions..." Commentators said it was not simply post-Bali actions or the "war on terror" which has put Australia offside with Asia.

They list a long line of pro-U.S. comments since Howard first came to power in 1996, the rise and fall of xenophobic politician Pauline Hanson during that time, and his tough anti-boatpeople stance which helped sweep him back to power last year.

Also, Australia's leadership of a United Nations force in East Timor in .2000, won international plaudits but damaged ties with Indonesia.

Howard has steered foreign policy away from the predominantly Asian focus of his center-left Labor predecessor Paul Keating and back to Western allies partly to distance himself from Labor.

But Cavan Hogue, a former Australian ambassador in Asia, said it "sent the message that Australia is not part of Asia".

"If you constantly tell people they are not as important to you as they used to be, then you can't blame them for believing you," wrote Hogue in The Australian on Friday.

Richard Woolcott, secretary of the foreign ministry during the 1991 Gulf War, said Canberra needed to find a better balance between its ties with the United States and its Asian neighbors.

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