Sat, 04 Nov 2000

Gunboat diplomacy employed since early invasion of Java

By Joesoepadi

JAKARTA (JP): In search of recognition and submission from other surrounding kingdoms in 1293 A.D., Kublai Khan, an emperor of the great Mongolese-Chinese kingdom and a grandson of the notorious Genghis Khan, dispatched an expedition of gunboats loaded with weaponry and troops to Java island.

One recalcitrant king challenging his obsession was Kertanegara, the last great king of Singosari kingdom in East Java.

His son-in-law, Raden Wijaya, who took over the army's command following the king's death in a domestic rebellion, finally struck the Tartar army and drove them back to mainland China.

This historic episode illustrates that "gunboat diplomacy", namely diplomacy backed by the use or threat of military force, has been practiced for a long time.

The style and method might have changed in the course of time, but remnants of the "gunboat diplomacy" can still be observed in numerous political world affairs in modern history.

Since the second half of the 19th century until the first decade of the 20th century, by means of military threat, scores of powerful countries (Britain, France, Russia, the United States) pressured the weak and fragile China under the Manchu dynasty for acquiring exorbitant political rights and economic concessions, leaving China with all but little economic and political freedom.

In the Cold War era (1947-1991), one practice of diplomatic pressure backed by military threat was demonstrated by the plot in overthrowing a nationalistic Iranian Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, who was considered unfriendly to Western interests.

This was after the nationalization of the British-dominated Iranian Oil Company and the demands that British troops be withdrawn from Iran. The plot was fully supported by the presence of the U.S. naval force off the Persian Gulf.

Later in that era, the kind of "gunboat diplomacy" was shown again in the Suez War affair in October 1956. Ignited by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's move to nationalize the Suez Canal Company (dominated by British and French stakeholders), a joint military action in a full-scale naval, air and ground assault against Egypt was launched by Britain, France and Israel.

Thanks to the defiant resistance and perseverance of the Egyptian people, international condemnation and solidarity, the aggressors' initial military victory turned out to be a diplomatic debacle for them. Nasser emerged as a symbol of new Arab nationalism.

In line with tremendous progress in technological development, the role of "gunboat diplomacy" relying largely on naval power has undergone a metamorphosis in method and style.

Instead of relying primarily on naval and ground forces, the weight of diplomatic pressure is combined with the superiority of air force and advanced warfare technology.

The shifting balance of power in the post Cold War era, following the declining influence of Russia in the international political stage, has made U.S. a superpower.

This new paradigm has made small countries weaker against the pressure of superpowers -- who can sometimes afford to hide behind the legitimacy of international organizations and their role as the "world's police".

The United Nations resolution on Iraq was originally a punishment for its invasion of Kuwait and aimed at destroying facilities to produce nuclear weapons and germ warfare.

However, in its application, some superpowers exercised additional unilateral sanctions by fixing "free air zone", beyond which no Iraqi aircraft is allowed to fly.

Likewise, the UN resolution on Yugoslavia was initially a condemnation of the ethnical cleansing of Kosovan people by the Serbs. But the bombings on scattered targets in Belgrade carried out by the U.S. and NATO air force that caused huge material damage and civilian casualties was beyond the UN resolution.

Nevertheless, diplomatic pressure relying on military force has not always been effective. A number of nations suffering from years of economic and military embargo remain persistent in upholding principles of their basic policy despite the suffering.

Indonesia today faces a similar situation. Possible sources of strength needed to face external pressure are all in disarray: national unity and solidarity, natural and human resources, economic potentials etc.

Successive political blunders made prior to and after the referendum on options for East Timor's future in 1999, including the recent incident in Atambua that killed three United Nations workers, have made Indonesia's position in international diplomacy even weaker.

The UN Security Council voted for a resolution on Sept. 6 condemning the killings and demanding Indonesia carry out an exhaustive investigation, bringing those responsible to trial and ensuring security by disarming pro-Indonesia militias.

Yet in Palestine, the killings of over 100 unarmed civilians by the Israeli military have gone unpunished. Only lately has the UN General Assembly issued a resolution to condemn the killings.

Indonesia's ability to overcome international pressure depends on how far it can manage to fulfill its international commitments. It can only expect to rally people's support by setting aside minor domestic political conflicts and tensions; all sides should therefore stop launching controversial and sensitive issues, provoking unnecessary political and social conflicts.

The writer, a retiree from a management position at a private company, is an observer of social and political affairs based in Jakarta.