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Australia Poised for Greater Role in Asia


A visit to Australia by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is being seen as a watershed in relations between the Asia-Pacific neighbors. In addition, a partnership agreement signed April 6, signals a new era of cooperation between two countries that until recently had viewed each other with suspicion.

When Australia led a United Nations peacekeeping force into East Timor in 1999, relations between Canberra and Jakarta hit an all-time low. Indonesia felt Australia had interfered in its domestic affairs as East Timor voted for independence.

Six years later, the political landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. Tragedy has brought the two countries - one with a predominantly European Christian heritage, the other an Asian nation with the world's largest Muslim population - closer together.

Speaking in Canberra a few days ago, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his gratitude for Australia's support after the December 26 tsunami and the recent earthquake off Sumatra.

"Every Australian in this room and in the rooms across Australia who saw our hardships, felt our pain and acted upon it has every reason to be proud of what you and your country have done for the tsunami victims. It is humanity and solidarity at its best," he said. "I am convinced we can take this friendship between Indonesia and Australia far, very far."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard was equally as warm in his comments to Mr. Yudhoyono. "President, you come as a true friend," he stated. "You come to this country as a man I respect and like a great deal."

Jakarta and Canberra have agreed to start negotiations on a new security treaty. They also plan greater cooperation on counter-terrorism measures, economic development and the reconstruction of Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged Aceh province.

Mr. Howard clearly sees President Yudhoyono as capable of tackling the tough issues that confront the Asia-Pacific region.

"Of all the shared challenges that Indonesia has with Australia, none is greater than the challenge of terrorism," said Mr. Howard. "A successful moderate Islamic Indonesia, led by a man of compassion and a man of vision such as President Yudhoyono, is about the most powerful weapon that we can have against zealotry and extremism in our part of the world."

This breakthrough in relations has been welcomed by Australia's political opposition, which has criticized the conservative government for neglecting Asia in favor of its alliance with the United States.

The leader of the opposition Labor party, Kim Beazley, believes these are historic times. "There is now an Indonesian leader who comprehends us completely," he said. "This is a prize for this country beyond measure."

Australia's relationship with Indonesia had begun to change even before Canberra's rapid response to December's tsunami.

A turning point was the terrorist attack on the Indonesia island of Bali in October 2002. The bombings killed 202 people - including 88 Australians. Memorial services have been held every year since to mark the day Australia's traditional sense of isolated security was blown away.

Professor Andrew MacIntyre from the Australian National University says the reinvigorated relationship between Australia and Indonesia is a result of a series of tragic events.

"It goes back to the Bali bombing and the embassy bombings in Jakarta, elections in both countries and of course the tsunami and earthquakes and now the helicopter crash," said Mr. MacIntyre. "But it's leaders on both sides making a personal commitment to try to push the relationship forward and iron out some of the bumps that historically come along."

Indonesia is keen for Australia to become more integrated into Asia, urging Canberra to join this year's East Asian summit in Malaysia.

Despite its significant re-positioning toward Asia, Australia is also committed to close military ties with the United States.

Russell Trood, a Liberal Party senator, believes this is sensible diplomacy by the Howard government. "These are not inconsistent foreign policy goals. They never have been," he said. "Many of our friends in Asia are close friends with Washington; Japan, for example, the Singaporeans are close friends with Washington. South Korea has an alliance with Washington, of course."

However, Australia's policy of pre-emptive military action against terrorist targets in Southeast Asia remains a barrier to greater acceptance by its neighbors.

The controversial policy has caused great unease and suspicion throughout the region, with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi expressing concern on the eve of his historic visit to Australia right after Mr. Yudhoyono's visit.

While in Australia, Mr. Abdullah did not directly endorse the idea of having Australia attend the East Asian summit. Still, the fact that he made the visit at all is a sign that Canberra is continuing to woo its other neighbors.

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