CANBERRA (Reuters) - Prime Minister John Howard was accused on Wednesday of sidelining Australia in Asia by angering regional neighbours with remarks that pre-emptive action in a foreign country was a legitimate response to terrorism.
Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have all lashed out at the comments, saying such action would amount to an act of war, although Howard did not specifically mention military action and insists his comments were not directed at the region.
Political commentators said the diplomatic spat again showed that foreign policy was the major weakness of the conservative leader who has won strong public support at home for putting domestic interests first and for his national security policies.
"His key weakness of faulty judgment in dealing with Southeast Asia is on display again," veteran commentator Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian newspaper.
"(He has an) inability to appreciate that any statement he makes about foreign or military policy cannot be limited to a domestic audience but reverberates across Southeast Asia."
Letters pages in newspapers were also full of criticism of Howard's tough talk, with only a smattering of praise.
Australia's sense of security, built largely on its geographical isolation and island status, was shattered on October 12 when bombs on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Bali killed over 180 people, including up to 90 Australians.
"Would someone please take our prime minister aside and explain to him what happens when you poke a stick in a bull ants' nest," wrote Sue Dethridge to the Sydney Morning Herald.
But the government was non-repentant in its comments, despite the outcry from Asia and increasing criticism at home, saying it was absolutely determined to destroy any source of threat.
Indonesian police have arrested 15 people in connection with the Bali blasts, with suspicions that a radical Southeast Asian Islamic network, Jemaah Islamiah, was behind the attacks.
"We have to accept, and our friends and neighbours in ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) do accept, that we have a significant problem with terrorism in this region," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters.
However Downer said Australia had no information to support a report in Singapore's Straits Times newspaper on Tuesday that Jemaah Islamiah planned to bomb the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Commentators said Howard's clumsy handling of Asia had soured relations since he took power six years ago and his latest comments would further strain ties.
Tensions were already running high with Canberra accused of overreacting after the Bali blasts by strengthening its travel warnings for Southeast Asia and closing its embassy in Manila in the Philippines last month on information of a threat.
Howard is often accused of putting relations with the United States and Britain above those with Asia, disregarding regional sensitivities and despite Australia's strong trade ties in Asia.
Government figures show 49 percent of Australia's total trade in 2001/02 was conducted within North and Southeast Asia.
"Words are bullets, Mr Howard," political commentator Michelle Grattan wrote in an opinion column in The Age newspaper.
"In today's uncertain world, Asian countries are ultra-sensitive and Australia has to be ultra-sensitive how it puts things."