Seventeen years on, East Timor intervention remains a success
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Seventeen years on, East Timor intervention remains a success

Australia's involvement in the liberation of East Timor, a mission launched on September 20, 1999, was the most decisive demonstration of Australian influence in the region since World War II, and the nation's largest military deployment since the Vietnam War. Australian diplomacy and leadership shaped the events that led to the birth of Asia's newest nation. But was it destined to be a success? And have we learnt the right lessons?

The East Timor crisis tested Australia's ability to respond to a regional incident like no other event before or since then. For the first time, Australia was expected to lead in forming a 22-nation coalition and in conducting a delicate and complex mission in the face of a resentful and emotionally charged residual Indonesian force and associated militia elements that remained in East Timor. Things could have gone horribly wrong with the insertion of troops.

Indonesian children burn a mock Australian flag in 1999 in protest against Australia's intervention in East Timor.

Indonesian children burn a mock Australian flag in 1999 in protest against Australia's intervention in East Timor.

Australian military planners braced themselves for the prospects of hundreds of casualties and Prime Minister John Howard, sensing the gravity of the situation and yet the desperate circumstances, sent Australian forces into East Timor knowing that the risk was a real one.

He knew, despite the UN endorsement and the international backing for the intervention, that "rogue" militia elements or acts of ostensibly plausible deniability could be launched against the force, particularly in the early hours of the insertion, when it was most vulnerable as it was being assembled in and around the small air and sea ports of Dili. The fact that the operation went as smoothly as it did has led many to think it was always going to work out that way. Counterfactuals can be controversial, but there are strong indications the operation could have proven far less successful.

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Perhaps the most significant key to success was the critical behind the scenes support for Australia's position from the US. Howard had wanted American troops on the ground but in reality what was need was not so much their combat forces as their influence over decision makers in Jakarta. Additional logistics, communications and intelligence support was welcome too. That support was delivered.

In addition, the support from some of the other states in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was a vital ingredient. Initially Indonesia wanted another ASEAN country to lead the mission, but eventually was willing to see Australia lead the coalition – as long as there was a significant ASEAN contribution. Singapore and Malaysia are Australia's closest security partners in south-east Asia, being members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. But being so close to Indonesia there was understandable nervousness about being too forthright in their support for Australia.

Further afield, Thailand volunteered to be the first ASEAN member state to join the coalition, offering up the deputy force commander and a thousand-strong taskforce. With the precedent set, others followed, notably the Philippines. But this didn't happen by accident.

This, in effect, was the return on the investment in what is sometimes called "defence diplomacy"; that is, relationship building through the offer of scholarships, joint exercises, VIP visits and familiarisation visits and exchanges. The investment in these activities over a number of decades helped build bonds of trust, understanding and mutual respect between the armed forces of Australia and its regional neighbours. They knew Australia had an important role to play in the region and they did not want to see the mission fail.

Another key to success was the way Australia, under Major-General Peter Cosgrove, handled the precarious situation on the ground in Dili. Listening to advice from his culturally aware and linguistically attuned military attaché in country, Cosgrove decided to visit Dili the day before the insertion to meet the Indonesian martial law commander, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, and settle on some agreed terms for the insertion of the international force on the next day.

That was an astute move. Backed up by a well-trained, professional force with a clear understanding of the stakes involved and the need for restraint, the mission was set for success.

Seventeen years on from this crisis, and after 15 years of operational deployments to the Middle East, the Australian Defence Force is seeking to reinvest in regional security ties, with increased ship visits, exchanges, joint exercises, training programs and familiarisation visits across south-east Asia and the south Pacific. It's heartening to know that the number of Australian military personnel learning regional languages at the Defence Force Language School is on the rise as well. The Defence Force, as we know, acts in many ways as an insurance policy against uncertainty. Since 1999, the ADF has deployed forces to Solomon Islands, to help stabilise that country, sent humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the tsunami-affected Indonesian province of Aceh, and helped more recently in Fiji, with disaster relief operations, amongst many other such circumstances. The insurance policy pays dividends in bolstering regional security and stability and providing emergency relief when needed as well.

The events of 1999 provide some important pointers for policy officials concerned with national security and international affairs contemplating Australia's approach to regional security issues today. Crises can arise at short notice and from unexpected quarters. Investments in strengthening regional relations and institutions adds to the benefit of the nation's defence insurance premium.

Indonesia matters and managing that relationship in concert with other regional partners warrants renewed efforts. There's certainly more to be done. Working together, Malaysia, Australia New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore (MANIS), for instance, could sweeten regional co-operation.

Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Bell School, College of Asia and the Pacific, at the Australian National University. He is the editor of East Timor Intervention: A Retrospective on INTERFETR (MUP, 2015) and will be talking about the East Timor intervention at ANU on 11 October @JohnBlaxland1