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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12849

Mr NUGENT (5:18 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, as you will know probably better than many, foreign affairs in this country has been brought home as an issue to Australians recently in a way that we probably have not seen for some time. Recent events, particularly in East Timor and Indonesia, are forcing us to re-evaluate some of our thinking not only in our foreign affairs strategy but also in some of our defence planning and execution. Therefore, I thought it might be worth while addressing some of those issues today. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am conscious that, in your capacity as the member for Wannon earlier in this debate, you may have touched on some of this area as well.

I want to say a few things about East Timor because 10 members of this parliament had the opportunity to visit that country last week and to see for ourselves what was happening in a defensive sense, in terms of the refugees, in terms of the United Nations action and so on. From my observations, it seemed to me that our military had acquitted themselves outstandingly well. Although they had acquitted themselves outstandingly well and we are all suitably proud of them and support them—there is no question about that—in some senses it would have been a fairly close-run thing if they had had to face an enemy of real substance. I say that because, in terms of equipment availability, quantity and readiness, that was sometimes a bit tight and, in terms of the hours and efforts those troops are having to put in on an ongoing basis, clearly that is not sustainable for too much longer into the future. So, whilst it has gone very well, I think we have learnt some very valuable military lessons.

I can inform the House quite categorically that Australia is pretty popular with the local population in East Timor. As you drive around East Timor in an Australian vehicle, you have not only all the little kids but also many of the adults waving their hands and giving you the thumbs up or the victory signs. They are very supportive and appreciative of what we have done as a country to help them—not only Australians as such but also Australia's efforts in marshalling the United Nations and that international force.

The refugees are certainly being fed, but clearly there is a long-term accommodation problem because the destruction really is quite stunning. You would think that there had been a major war in that country between two sides, with bombing and shelling and all the rest of it, when that is not what happened at all. There is the destruction of large parts of Dili. We also went via helicopter down to Suai in the south-east, and it is impossible to see a building with its roof on in Suai. In fact, if they are brick buildings, they have usually been burnt out; if they are wooden buildings, there is a black scorch mark on the ground. The destruction is on such a scale—so widespread and so complete—that it clearly had to have been organised by the TNI rather than being a gang of hooligans running riot. We also had the opportunity to meet the United Nations human rights investigating team. From talking to them, there is no question that a report will go to the UN calling for further action in terms of human rights abuses and the behaviour of the TNI in East Timor.

It is also important for all the reasons I have just mentioned that the United Nations peacekeeping force takes over fairly quickly so that Australia, having done the right thing, is perhaps no longer the prime mover, although I think we will be a major contributor to any peacekeeping and aid activity in that country for a long time. I believe that what Australia did was correct, but it did illustrate some problems. Firstly, on our military preparedness, we have always taken the view that we would have some notice of an event coming up and that we would have time to get the troops in place, to get the equipment and so on. What East Timor showed us quite clearly is that there is no notice given these days, particularly if you are going in under such an emergency situation. So we need to develop our defence strategy on that basis.

One of the other issues that came out of this was the assumed support that we thought we would always get from the United States. Clearly, that was not there. I think the United States were, frankly, somewhat recalcitrant. They demonstrated tardiness in supporting the operation in East Timor and in applying some pressure to Indonesia to allow the United Nations force in there. The United States' participation or non-participation in East Timor, although they finally came to the party in a limited way, shows that there are some other concerns for this country in terms of that relationship. For example, we are well aware that the United States' relationship with China—which is also important to us—has been heavily influenced in recent months by domestic politics. We know that the States have a lame duck President who, although he knows what is the right thing to do in a number of areas, manifestly either cannot or will not deliver. The latest example of that is probably the World Trade Organisation meeting last week.

It seems to me that United States' interests are not always Australia's interests. One of those situations might be in terms of Taiwan. Taiwan is an important country to us. It is an important trading country. It is a democratic country these days, and that is important. But do we want to automatically be dragged into a war if the United States decides to come in on the Taiwanese side in any future conflict with mainland China? It seems to me that, if the Taiwanese were to provoke such a situation, we would not necessarily want to automatically become involved.

I refer the House to an article by Professor Stuart Harris in the Financial Review on 5 November. There is not time to go into all of that here, but he makes the point very strongly—and I would agree with the point that he makes—that it is not necessarily appropriate for us to always automatically be locked in to whatever the States want to do. As a footnote to our relationship with the United States, I must say that I know many members of this House are frustrated by the fact that we have the Pine Gap facility which United States congressmen can go and view but members of this House are not allowed to go and view.

Another issue in our foreign affairs policy is the big exposure we have had this year to China. We have seen significant changes in our relationship with China which the Australian people probably would not have thought possible a few years ago. Of course, trade is an important part of our relationship with China, but we also have a significant dialogue on human rights. That dialogue has come under some criticism from a number of quarters. I think we need to understand that, whilst that dialogue is important and hopefully we are seeing some small signs of improvement, there is a long way to go before China's approach to human rights will be totally compatible with this country's. There fore, we need some pragmatism in the relationship. There has been a lot of talk about special relationships and so on, but it seems to me that you have got to develop relationships with different countries in different ways, depending on the circumstances.

With respect to Indonesia—our nearest and largest neighbour—I think that we are going to have a particularly rocky and difficult future in the next few years. It is a touchy subject for the Indonesians themselves. We need to give them credit for the democratic elections. Perhaps there is an element of when you are in trouble at home you blame somebody overseas. They have got all sorts of problems at home with the economy, Aceh, Ambon and so on, so perhaps it is useful to take a few pot shots at Australia. The army is still perhaps a slightly unknown but an important force politically and militarily within the country. That is going to be difficult. The reaction from Indonesia over things like the illegal immigrants has been a major disappointment. And it has been particularly disappointing that President Wahid has been getting a bit personal, and I do not think that is a good sign.

Of course we have good relationships with a number of other countries in the region. All of these things mean that the rules in our region and for our foreign policy have changed. We need to re-evaluate our defence and foreign affairs policy. We need to stand up for our own standards but not necessarily try to impose those on other people. We need to change other people's views on some issues of cooperation through talk. We need to find peaceful solutions—not military solutions—if it is at all possible. We are not necessarily slaves to the Americans. We need to develop a new strategy and, if appropriate, restructure to support our new foreign affairs strategy, our defence force posture. Above all, remember that we have to live in the region and that life is not always going to be easy. (Time expired)