Tue, 09 Nov 1999

'No' vote reveals Australia's isolation

By Trevor Datson

CANBERRA (Reuters): Far from emerging as a new force on the Asian political scene, Australia appears to have underlined its isolation in the region with a popular vote to retain Britain's Queen Elizabeth as sovereign.

Some Asian countries -- in particular Indonesia and Malaysia -- have already turned their back on Australia in the aftermath of the East Timor crisis.

Now analysts say that by rejecting a republic in a weekend referendum, Australians have shown in turn where their sympathies lie.

"The perception is that, whatever the government of Australia says, the people of Australia are not ready to engage with Asia -- and I suppose the referendum would strengthen that view," said Harold Crouch of the Australian National University.

Since Britain began to flirt with Europe in the early 1970s, at the expense of its former colonies, successive Australian governments have worked to establish closer regional links.

Trade and military ties were nurtured and public criticism muted until Prime Minister John Howard's outspoken criticism of Jakarta's handling of the East Timor crisis soured the fruits of two decades of rapprochement.

Ties remain strong with partners such as Singapore and Japan, but Australia's leadership of the multinational force restoring peace to East Timor was the last straw in Jakarta, analysts said.

"Australia has been forgotten by Indonesia because of its stand on East Timor. Indonesia doesn't care one way or the other," said Derek Manangka, senior editor with the respected Indonesian language daily Media Indonesia.

In fact, rather than emerging as a regional foreign policy power, Australia risks falling off the Asian political radar altogether, said Gerry van Klinken of Inside Indonesia magazine.

"Jakarta is not putting priority on restoring relations with Australia, it's looking north, it's looking to the Middle East, Asia, especially India and Pakistan," van Klinken told Reuters.

Although President Abdurrahman Wahid has met the Australian ambassador to Jakarta and Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab has made soothing noises towards Canberra, the state of bilateral relations can be judged by Wahid's omission of Australia from his current tour of Southeast Asian nations.

Crouch, senior fellow in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University, said Australia's closest neighbors never really accepted white Anglo-Saxon Australia into the Asian fold.

"I don't think Indonesians have turned their back on Australia, but then I don't think they ever had their front to us in the first place. As for Malaysia, I don't think they were looking to Australia in any way before," Crouch told Reuters.

Wahid's frosty stance towards Australia was unlikely to thaw in the near future, Crouch added.

"He still blames Australia for what happened in East Timor. When we appeared to be opposing them over East Timor they felt betrayed. What we'll be needing to do is go back to normal."

Australia's decision on Saturday to retain Queen Elizabeth as head of state was unlikely to arouse much reaction at the government level, Howard told a news conference on Sunday.

"Asian countries don't give a damn about our constitutional arrangements," he said, but added that ties with the West would not be strengthened at the expense of Asia.

"Australia was always going to have ties with the West, with America...I think it's really limiting ourselves unnecessarily, getting worried about those things."

But Van Klinken said there was a risk that Asia's hostility or, at best, indifference towards Australia could be reflected in Australians turning back the clock, monarchy or no monarchy.

"We might also move to some kind of isolationism that says our policy to engage with Asia was a mistake, and let's get back to the United States where the economy is booming."