Subject: AFR: Australia responsible for E Timor, says US
Date: Fri, 3 Sep 1999 16:44:16 EDT

Australian Financial Review Saturday, September 4, 1999

Australia responsible for E Timor, says US

By Joanne Gray, Washington

The US expects Australia to lead any peace-keeping force in East Timor and to push for a United Nations resolution to authorise such a force.

The US State Department also believes that Australia should carry responsibility for seeing through the independence process. Australia should take the role, the department says, because it was Prime Minister Mr John Howard's letter to Indonesia's President, Dr B. J. Habibie, last December urging Jakarta to consider self-determination for East Timor that triggered the process.

The way the US State Department sees it, according to one source, "the Howard letter provoked the whole thing. Now Australia has the responsibility to follow through."

The US is also trying to bolster the role of the UN and limit its own involvement in far-flung peace-keeping action after it had its fingers burned in the Congress and internationally over its near-unilateral actions in Kosovo, where air strikes were launched without UN Security Council approval.

Granted, America's ability to deal with Indonesia would be much greater if the East Timor issue were resolved peacefully.

But the Clinton Administration believes there would be little support in the Congress for the deployment of US peace keepers in Timor, a faraway island whose troubles have found little resonance in the American polity beyond parts of the Portuguese and Catholic communities. Moreover, the US has many other international commitments and its armed forces are already stretched across the globe.

In staying distanced from the East Timor issue, the US is protecting what it believes is a more crucial strategic interest in the stability of Indonesia as a whole.

The Pentagon, especially, is worried about the impetus Timor's likely secession could give to other break-away groups in Indonesia, and fears high-profile US involvement might add to this impetus.

It is not yet clear whether US public detachment from the process could also extend to top-level contacts. Dr Habibie has asked for a meeting at APEC with Mr Clinton, according to sources, but so far a bilateral meeting has not been granted.

UN officials late this week accepted that the rollout of a peace-keeping force could be days or weeks away, rather than months.

Discussions about the make-up of such a force and how quickly it could be deployed have already begun.

"One of the big questions is, what is Australia willing to do in terms of peace keeping?" said Mr Doug Paal, director of the Asia-Pacific Policy Centre in Washington.

The US is willing to contribute technical and logistical assistance, but is reluctant to take a high-profile role in a UN deployment.

In some quarters, there is also an expectation that Portugal would contribute, at least financially.

Japan and the US would get involved, Mr Paal said, "as long as [involvement] did not sacrifice their interests in stability in Indonesia".

Chinese involvement was not out of the question, he said, because China would be delighted if the peace-keeping intervention "went back to using the UN mandate" to sanction the operation, after the US ignored the UN with its aerial war in Kosovo and Yugoslavia.

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