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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Howard: Strike Terrorists First

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Australia's neighbors intensified their criticism on Monday of Prime Minister John Howard's call for pre-emptive strikes against terrorists in Asia, saying it had endangered regional efforts to fight extremist threats.

Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand say the sovereignty of their nations would be violated if Australia deployed its military -- the region's most sophisticated -- on their soil.

On Sunday, the Australian leader said he would order pre-emptive strikes if he knew that Australian citizens were about to be attacked. He also called for changes to the UN Charter and international law to permit pre-emptive strikes against terrorists in other countries.

In Canberra on Monday, an unrepentant Howard defended his stand in Parliament after his opponents accused him of warmongering and angering Asian governments.

"Any Australian prime minister unwilling to do that would be failing the most basic test of office," Howard said.

Separately, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer denied any such strike was being planned, but said Australia would take action in self-defense against terrorists.

"But to draw the conclusion from this that Australia is on the threshold of sending troops aggressively into Southeast Asia obviously ... isn't true."

Australia's military includes a well-equipped air force strike force capable of hitting targets across Southeast Asia. It also boasts special forces trained in counterterrorism.

Howard's remarks sparked outrage in Indonesia.

"Australia is ready to invade Asia," screamed the headline of mass circulation newspaper Republika. "Australia these days is not ashamed to position itself as the sheriff of the United States," it said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Haas Wirayuda said Howard's comments "are unacceptable."

"The majority of United Nations members would find it difficult to accept. And the 115 nonaligned countries would have the same [stance], " he said.

In the Philippines, national security chief Roilo Golez suggested Manila might "go slow" in negotiations over a proposed joint anti-terror pact with Canberra in the wake of Howard's remarks.

"We cannot allow the fundamental doctrine of sovereignty to be set aside in the name of terrorism," Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said.

Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak said Howard could not launch unilateral counterterrorism action in a foreign country without the consent of the government involved.

"I am not sure why he made such a statement, but Malaysia's stand on this matter is clear -- that is, the involvement of foreign troops on our soil will complicate efforts to combat terror elements in this country," a Malaysian newspaper quoted Najib as saying.

Howard's call for pre-emptive strikes has come as his nation watches how Southeast Asian countries deal with Islamic militants following the Oct. 12 Bali attack that left nearly 200 people dead -- almost half of them Australian tourists.

Indonesia, which is operating a joint police investigation with Australian detectives to solve the Bali case, also criticized Howard.

Keith Suter, an international law and conflict resolution specialist, said Howard appeared to be reacting to earlier claims that his government failed to warn tourists of the dangers in Indonesia before the Bali bombings despite receiving intelligence of a possible terrorist strike.

"The prime minister, though, has been so stung by that reaction that he has now moved to the other extreme," Suter said. "The trouble is what's sounding good here in Australia is obviously causing a lot of trouble overseas."

The opposition Labor Party said Howard was using fear of terrorism to justify support for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. Howard is one of Washington's staunchest supporters and was quick to contribute troops, ships and planes to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

The prime minister said last month that he was drafting military contingency plans for a possible war in Iraq following talks with U.S. officials.

Howard's critics claim that his pro-U.S. policies have weakened Australia's relations with Asia.

"The prime minister only ever wants to talk war," Labor leader Simon Crean said.