antiwar movement in Australia

Henry C.K. Liu hliu at
Tue Dec 3 08:41:13 MST 2002

Australia's threats anger Asian allies
By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY - Renewed threats by Australia to launch preemptive strikes against
terrorists in Southeast Asia have put Canberra on a predictable collision
course with neighboring governments.

But this may be only the start of a more aggressive stance toward
extremists, with a state-run strategy group calling for an increased
intelligence activity in the region and greater efforts to build political
stability within the region.

Prime Minister John Howard angered some of Australia's closest Asian and
Pacific allies, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Papua New
Guinea, by vowing on the weekend to respond at source to any threats against
Australian interests.

"It stands to reason if you believe somebody was going to launch any attack
on your country, either of a conventional kind or a terrorist kind, and you
had the capacity to stop it and there was no other alternative than to use
that capacity, then of course you would have to use it," he said in a TV

Howard, who was a practicing lawyer before entering public office, added
that many believed international law "has to catch up with that new reality"
of global terrorism.

Condemned as "dangerous" by Indonesia and "unwise" by the Philippines, the
comments point to a sobering reappraisal of the terrorist threat to
Australians since the Bali bombings in October.

Legislators have responded to a public backlash over the absence of specific
warnings to travelers by pushing through a raft of bills designed to
strengthen the intelligence and security framework.

Federal and state governments agreed on a A$58 million (US$32 million)
package of physical improvements that will include the stationing of air
marshals on international flights and beefed-up security at overseas
embassies. This was in addition to an allocation of A$128.5 million in the
2002-03 budget over four years for strengthened security at airports and an
upgraded intelligence capability that was approved in response to last
year's September 11 attacks in the United States.

However, most attention has focused on changes to the Security Legislation
(Terrorism) Bill that will empower the leading intelligence agency to probe
and act on perceived threats abroad. Under the amended version of the bill,
the definition of a terrorism threat has been broadened to cover the
activities of persons or threats to property both within and outside
Australia. Actions that might attract retribution include the training or
support of suspected terrorists, possession of implements associated with
terrorist acts and the possession of documents "likely to facilitate" a
terrorist act.

Authority to undertake counter-terrorism operations offshore is granted
under the bill to Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the
main domestic security agency. But intelligence analysts say that ASIO's
resources are over-stretched and that it will probably rely heavily upon
defense sources to secure information and take follow-up action.

"ASIO gets much of its input from the Defense Signals Directorate via the
Defense Intelligence Organization and the National Assessments Office,
because - well, to be honest, it is not geared up to respond to a dispersed
and ill-defined threat of this nature," said the director of a civilian
security company with intelligence links. "One of the great failings of
Australian intelligence, and there are many, is the inability to bring all
the various civil, military, legal, criminal entities together under one
roof and hammer out a common position, and we will see this failing causing
diplomatic ruptures if Canberra starts policing in foreign jurisdictions."

Southeast Asian governments have already rejected an offer, made through
diplomatic channels soon after the Bali bombings, that Australian defense
personnel be given an operational counter-terrorism function.

But a military intelligence role may be difficult to avoid, at least until
civilian agencies are overhauled.

ASIO has a listed manpower of only 550, about 30 percent less than its
early-1990s strength, and a modest funding of A$86 million, which is 0.5
percent of the defense budget. Although its operational capability was
boosted ahead of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, which passed off
without any serious incidents, much of this upgrading was of a short-term

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the agency tasked with
collecting intelligence offshore, is similarly hamstrung by its small Asian
network of operatives, which has forced the intelligence community to rely
increasingly upon electronics surveillance. In any case, ASIS is prohibited
from acting in a policing role. The agency's charter also blocks it from
"planning for, or undertaking, paramilitary activities involving violence
against the person or the use of weapons".

One outcome has been gaps at a policy level, especially within the Office of
National Assessments and Defense Intelligence Organization, which are the
two key analysis groups. As recently as October, there were differing
opinions on the threat posed by Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah, which
would later be blamed for the bomb attacks in Bali that killed more than 180
people. Jemaah Islamiyah was not branded a terrorist organization by
Australia until after the bombings, despite evidence that it was deeply
involved in a spate of religious murders in Indonesia.

Nevertheless, Canberra appears to have accepted a recommendation by its
leading strategy think tank, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI),
for an increased presence in the immediate Asian region.

The ASPI, which is funded by the government but has an independent mandate,
warned in its annual policy report of the danger of becoming too preoccupied
with the threat posed by unstable regimes such as Iraq.

"We need to prioritize according to one simple principle: while all aspects
of the campaign against terrorism are important, priority should be given
first to domestic efforts here at home, second to regional measures, and
third to our contribution at the global level," the report stated.

Howard has drawn upon the lessons of the Bali bombings to justify his
government's strong backing for a US-led assault on Iraq, while Washington
in turn is solidly behind Canberra's efforts to beef up regional security
efforts. Australian special forces troops were ordered back from Afghanistan
last month in apparent readiness to play a supportive role in Iraq.

But some Asian analysts are convinced that Australia will have limited
influence in predominantly Muslim Southeast Asia as long as it supports the
hardline US posture against Islamic militancy.

ASPI argued that the threats were indivisible, though the more immediate
danger was from Australia's own neighborhood, and especially political
instability in Indonesia and Pacific neighbors such as Papua New Guinea, the
Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The think-tank called for Canberra to strengthen the development of
democratic government in Indonesia and take a bigger role in ensuring the
survival of ailing Pacific nations, even at the risk of straining diplomatic

"Australia can no longer avoid being drawn too closely into the management
of their internal affairs," the report said of the Pacific states, which all
face intense economic and social challenges.

"We need to look at a new and more active role in helping these countries
get back on their feet."

2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Philip Ferguson wrote:

> Peter Boyle writes:
> > (not one serious political commentator in Australia doubts
> > that if Labor was in government in Canberra, they would
> > support Bush and Blair's war drive).
> The fact that the british Labour leadership are up to their eyeballs in
> it would seem to back this up.  But closer to home, NZ Labour prime
> minister Helen Clark rushed to defend Aussie Liberal (ie Tory) prime
> minister Howard when he talked about an Australian pre-emptive strike
> against countries harbouring 'terrorists' who 'threatened' or 'might
> threaten' Australia.

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