International Papers

Australia Speaks Loudly

“Australia Ready To Invade Asia,” read a headline in the Indonesian paper Republika Monday. Papers in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand joined in the condemnation of Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s suggestion that Canberra would consider pre-emptive action beyond its borders if it believed there was a terrorist threat to Australia. As reported in the Age of Melbourne, Howard told a TV interlocutor Sunday, “It stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was going to launch an attack against your country, either of a conventional kind or of a terrorist kind, and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity, then of course you would have to use it.” Australian pols also piled on: According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, “Opposition politicians at home accused him of seeking to make domestic political gain and divert attention from disastrous state election results at the weekend.”

The Australian papers criticized the prime minister’s indiscretion and poor timing. The Australian declared: “John Howard is broadly correct in what he has been saying about the necessity sometimes to take pre-emptive military action. Nonetheless, he was ill-advised in today’s ticklish security environment to say it.” The editorial concluded that since Australia’s ability to use coercive military action is extremely limited, “it is simply foolish to be canvassing issues in such a way as will, even if distorted by regional media, gratuitously annoy significant figures in the region. Speak softly and carry a big stick, said Teddy Roosevelt. It remains good advice.”

The Sydney Morning Herald found Howard’s musings “seriously ill-advised.” Howard couldn’t resist “playing it tough for a domestic audience,” but in doing so he has made the task of coordinating counterterrorism efforts more difficult: “[B]y placing that argument in the context of South-East Asia, Howard has unnecessarily damaged relations with the region’s governments and fanned hostility toward Australia among the people in those countries. It makes it that much harder to prosecute the war on terrorism where it poses the gravest danger.” An SMH editorial, which described the remarks as “unwise,” “dangerous,” and “unnecessarily careless,” worried that “an ‘imminent threat’ can be claimed as a pretext to war, offering scenarios in which the security forces of one nation might justify breaching the borders of another.”

In Asia, the rhetoric was overheated: An op-ed in the Philippine Star portrayed Australia as an intimidator—”A nation less of than 20 million Australians trying to bully more than 600 million Southeast Asians”—and Howard came in for some over-the-top personal criticism: “I won’t dignify Mr. Howard by comparing him to Adolf Hitler, but what he’s mouthing is beginning to sound eerily like ‘Australia über alles,’ or ‘today we own Australia (not Deutschland?), tomorrow the world!’ Sieg heil, Führer John!”

The Straits Times of Singapore said: “While Mr Howard’s anger over the fact that about half of the 180 people killed on Oct 12 by suspected Islamic militants on the Indonesian island of Bali were Australian can be understood … an incursion by his troops into a neighbouring country without that country’s authorisation or United Nations’ sanction would be another matter entirely.” Still, the editorial put the onus on those Asian nations accused of harboring terrorists to root them out with more vigor: “While Mr Howard’s talk of pre-emptive strikes in friendly countries may seem outrageous now, he will find sympathisers at home and also abroad unless nations show conviction in prosecuting the war on terror.”

Indonesia’s Jakarta Post fretted about the recent trend away from international and regional cooperation: “Ironically, the nations that are indulging in unilateralism are the same ones who are touting the benefits of globalization, which is founded upon the existence of strong international cooperation in all fields.” The editorial said it was Howard’s “arrogance” that had offended Asians: “This is not the first time that the Australian leader has antagonized his Asian neighbors as he fans the nationalist and patriotic sentiments of his people. But his game of playing domestic politics is increasingly coming at the expense of Australia’s relations with Asia. And his game will, sooner or later, backfire on Australia’s own interests.”