Thursday, September 10, 2009

East Timor's Big, Dopey Neighbour Needs to Wake Up

Australia often looks north through an intellectual fog so thick our involvement in the region can run the risk of doing more harm than good, and one of the clearest examples is East Timor. Australians have great interest in seeing it become democratic in substance and form, and keen interest in resolving the circumstances around the Balibo five deaths, now subject to an Australian Federal Police investigation.

But the sad truth is many of the differences separating Australia from its near neighbour are growing deeper each day. East Timor is on Australia's northern doorstep, and we have a large presence there. But it is the Chinese and the Cubans who are making the greatest advances - politically, economically and socially - in shaping its future.

This pattern has become pronounced since 2005, when Australia prematurely withdrew its stabilisation forces, a likely factor in the following unrest, which left 30 dead and more than 100,000 displaced. Moreover, had the military advisers remaining been in a position to better detect tensions building within its defence force - and intervened in a timely manner - the country might not have gone to the brink of civil war. That shambolic episode was a sharp reminder of how ignorance and official deception persist, more than 30 years after the Indonesian invasion and the deaths in Balibo.

Australia's peacekeeping, while important, was unfinished in 2005. There was a fundamental lack of understanding about the political and cultural dynamics between the eastern and western factions of the new army being raised from former resistance forces. How much of this was due to poor intelligence-gathering on the ground and how much was due to inadequate political support from Canberra will continue to generate debate.

The way Australia conducts economic relations is not much better. By playing hardball in negotiations over sharing oil and gas in the Timor Sea, Australia has undermined trust and confidence. It is little wonder China has inveigled its way into negotiations over joint operations to develop these resources.

While Australia's attention is diverted daily by dramas in Dili, it seems blissfully ignorant of the steady spread of Chinese capital across the country. This is apparent in lavish new government buildings given by the Chinese, and the sudden rise of a new merchant class throughout the urban areas.

The way this fledgling nation goes about embracing capitalism may be its own business. But, given the problems this same phenomenon is now causing in Papua New Guinea, this issue might at least be raised as a point of discussion, given our supposed role in guiding it to democracy. Perhaps our mentoring role has been little more than a charade to help facilitate oil negotiations. This cynical view is supported by the fact that Australia's aid is being overshadowed by Cuba.

Its success in delivering basic health care and literacy to the rural poor is quite properly winning the hearts and minds of the people. It is a quirk of history that Cubans are providing the basic building blocks of democracy, and their particular brand of humanism may prove vital in helping the eastern Timorese cope with the ravages of global capitalism, mostly being unleashed by the Chinese.

In the meantime, Australia's official response to East Timor's development needs has been part of the international effort, where vast amounts of aid have dissipated into salaries, consulting fees, and reports. Australians flock to Dili to seek high-salaried jobs, through which they can become cocooned within a bubble, separate from the vast majority of the rural poor.

Sadly, East Timor is not an isolated case. Australia's relations with countries throughout the Asia-Pacific are incongruent with its long-term strategic interests. At a time when we are looking at deeper economic integration, when there is the continued threat of terrorism, and growing demand for deeper, more meaningful cultural relations, we should be investing more in our basic intelligence capacity, through education at all levels and through research. Instead, experts in these fields complain of declining resources and diminishing capacities in the study of Asian-Pacific cultures and languages.

This is strange, given that more than $15 billion a year is earned by exporting education, mostly in this region. Clearly, these profits are being poorly reinvested in strategic areas of teaching and research that can help to build cultural awareness. This fact was made painfully obvious in recent months with the outburst of Indian student protests in Sydney and Melbourne. The protests point to an international education industry in turmoil largely because it has been driven by commercial imperatives, rather than those of the students or Australia's broader national interests.

As the strategic landscape of the region changes, with the US playing a less dominant role and the rise of China, Australia can no longer afford to make such mistakes. No longer can it remain aloof, allowing itself to be the ''odd man out'' in Asia. It needs to grasp every opportunity to enhance its role as an intelligent insider, rather than being a hapless bystander.

Peter Quiddington. The Sydney Morning Herald. Dr Peter Quiddington is an adjunct lecturer in politics at the University of New England.

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