Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 15:29 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 15:29 | SYDNEY

Rudd has got it right on Timor

13 February 2008 13:02

Guest blogger:  Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury (pictured), Associate Head of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University.

Hugh White asks how we are to judge Australia sending more troops and police to East Timor. The answer is, as a quick and necessary response to a potentially escalating problem. There is no doubt that without the presence of the ISF on the ground in East Timor it would have already descended into chaos. I received personal messages that demonstrations of the type leading to this chaotic outcome were already being organised. That they did not eventuate was entirely due to the ISF's robust profile in Dili following Monday's attempted coup and the death of Reinado.

Why extra troops and police? Because those there will have been on 24 hour alert, and that means little if any sleep for a few days. More troops and police means more fresh faces on patrol, and if Hugh White has ever been in a conflict environment he will know that a lack of sleep is both the standard and that it is dangerously debilitating. Reducing that makes for better judgment calls on the spur of the moment, and all around greater safety for all concerned. The number of 120 troops is not great, but perhaps is as many as were readily available, and of course is an important symbol of Australia's continuing commitment to East Timor's stability.

In terms of what the existing 900 troops can do, in an emergency they would be — and have been — fully stretched. This is a minimum, not maximum, required number. A very big part of East Timor's problems in 2006 came as a consequence of the precipitous withdrawal of Australian forces, and the UN. Their retention at that time would have gone a long way towards capping that particular problem.

The operational objectives in question are, as noted, ensuring continuing stability, especially in Dili. It appears the ISF is doing just that, and as the situation stabilises they will be able to draw down. As to 'our long term strategic objectives', again, they are stability — and hopefully a successful democracy — in our near neighbor, retention of a stable trilateral relationship between Australia, East Timor and Indonesia, and continuation of existing Timor Sea hydrocarbon agreements. There is also the still strong sense of good will that exists between many, perhaps most, Australians, and the people of East Timor. Hugh White ignores this to Australia's detriment, as did the Howard Government ahead of and just immediately after the referendum of 30 August 1999.

The planned visit by Mr Rudd is a gesture of support and solidarity for an emerging and still struggling democracy. Perhaps Hugh White should think more broadly, and consider the idea that strategic interest is not just determined by a military presence alone, but by retaining friends, and sometimes demonstrating that friendship.

As for military-only options, Hugh White should be aware that Australian aid to East Timor is in the process of being significantly increased. The commitment is, then, a well-rounded one, and one that Hugh White would be advised to observe a little more on the ground.