100 Memorandum to Jakarta

Canberra, 3 March 1975


Portuguese Timor

Attached is a copy of 'talking points with Indonesia' prepared in consultation with the Department of Defence on the subject of Portuguese Timor.

  1. The talking points were foreshadowed in a submission (copy attached) sent to the Acting Minister on 22 February.1 They have been cleared by the Acting Secretary.
  2. You would, of course, wish to draw upon the points selectively depending on the interlocutor and the circumstances of each discussion.2


Assistant Secretary

South-East Asia Branch



Australia and Indonesia share a strategic interest in trying to ensure that Portuguese Timor does not become a source of regional instability or a vehicle for external influences inimical to the interests of our two countries. Australia recognises the particular importance of the Indonesian interest. Portuguese Timor, whatever the constitutional status that it may ultimately have, forms and will form part of the Indonesian world.

In addition it is basic to the philosophy of the Australian Government that the inhabitants of Portuguese Timor should be given the opportunity to decide their own future through an internationally acceptable act of self-determination. If they should opt for merger with Indonesia, we should welcome that choice. But we must also respect their choice if it were for a political process leading to continuing links with Portugal, or for an independent status.

These two considerations are not incompatible. It should be possible to achieve a position which both protects Indonesia's security concerns-and our own-and meets the need to respect the proper aspirations of political groups in Portuguese Timor.

A. Developments in Portuguese Timor

[matter omitted]3

B. The Risks and Opportunities

[matter omitted]4

C. Indonesia's Fears

We recognise Indonesia's apprehensions about Portuguese Timor. But we wonder whether, especially in the light of the evident acceptance by UDT/FRETILIN of a protracted timetable for independence, these fears are to be seen as immediately pressing. Our own studies suggest that the situation is not yet at all dangerous.

As we understand it, one Indonesian fear is that an independent Portuguese Timor would be poor and weak and therefore vulnerable to penetration by external influences, hostile to Indonesian interests, which would seek to use Portuguese Timor as a base for subversive activities against Indonesia. It goes without saying that the Australian Government would not want a political entity to emerge in Timor (or anywhere else) that threatened Indonesia-or Australia.

Is there, however, any serious prospect that this is a short-term contingency? In the first place, as we understand it, the Portuguese Timorese are not seeking early independence. Even were they to obtain it, would that pose any immediate problem for us and Indonesia unless they had obtained independence in a climate of hostility towards us (and we should be able to avoid that)?

Certainly an independent Timorese state would be poor and weak. But it would be no more exposed than some of Australia's South Pacific neighbours. We have detected no evidence of Chinese or Soviet interest in Portuguese Timor. Nor do we think that either would wish under present or immediately foreseeable circumstances to risk the development of their relations with South East Asian countries by meddling in Portuguese Timor. That territory would seem to be peripheral, at a great distance, to the present focus of Chinese and Soviet global pre-occupations. The map itself does not suggest either power would find it easy to develop a policy of penetrating the territory.

The anxiety that developments in Portuguese Timor might stimulate separatist sentiment and activity elsewhere in Indonesia is, of course, very much a matter for Indonesia's own judgment. But Indonesia has shown itself well able to contain similar problems in the past. It should not be impossible to bring this problem home to the Portuguese Timorese themselves and to ensure their cooperation with Indonesia. There is reason to hope that Portugal would act likewise.

In summary, and while we should welcome further discussions with the relevant Indonesian authorities, our assessment, based on a full study of the possibilities, is that in the shorter term developments in Portuguese Timor do not pose unacceptable risks to the region. This is a matter we should like to pursue with Indonesia at the next round of 5 talks.

D. What of the longer term?

There has been speculation that Indonesia might feel its long-term interests sufficiently threatened to move militarily in the short term to pre-empt any development of Portuguese Timor in the direction of independence. This possibility of an Indonesian resort to force is a very sensitive matter, and we raise it with Indonesia only after careful reflection. We are, of course, glad to note the emphatic denials from Indonesia which followed the flurry of press speculation at the end of February. But the reports have persisted and continue to attract public attention in Australia. We believe that the consequences of precipitate action by Indonesia would be of such an order, in particular to our bilateral relations on which we place great store, that we owe it to Indonesia to expose our anxieties fully and frankly.

In the first place, Indonesian military intervention in Portuguese Timor would have a heavy impact on Australian public opinion. It would likely evoke strong criticism in the Australian community which would see it as intervention designed to forestall an act of free choice in Portuguese Timor. The recent press criticism in Australia is indicative of the strength of feeling on this score. Pressure of public opinion of all shades would damage, to an extent we cannot at this point precisely measure, the close and substantial relationship we have developed with Indonesia. It could risk changing or at least overshadowing, the very favourable climate in which that relationship has been developing.

We would be concerned secondly lest military intervention by Indonesia in Portuguese Timor provoked an unfavourable reaction both in the region and the world at large. Such action by Indonesia would constitute an abrupt departure from the regional policies Indonesia has followed during the last decade. Would not the sense of trust and regional equilibrium that Indonesia has succeeded in building up over this last decade be disrupted?

African opinion could be alienated especially in view of FRETILIN's links with Frelimo in Mozambique. Indonesia would have to expect criticism in the Committee of Twenty-Four and also, perhaps, in the Security Council. Australia could not help Indonesia in this. We could imagine a situation in which many of Indonesia's friends would likewise find it difficult to sustain the warmth and depth of their relationship with Indonesia.

Would there not be a risk that the incorporation of Portuguese Timor in the face of declared opposition from the principal political groups would create risks of, and opportunities for, foreign meddling? We have received a telegram from Horta talking of the danger of a 'new Viet Nam'6 (i.e. threatening guerrilla resistance). This could make Portuguese Timor a source of the very instability that the initial military action was intended to forestall.

E. The Alternative Approach

We understand Indonesia's abiding concern that there be stability in its border regions, and have admired its constructive contributions to this end, for example, in relations with the Malaysians, in the maritime approaches and in Borneo and as regards the situation in Sabah and the Southern Philippines. (The same concern to help maintain stability in South East Asia is reflected in Indonesian policies in ASEAN and its membership of the ICCS in Vietnam and its efforts to bring about negotiations in Cambodia.) Do not these processes and institutions point the way for handling the question of Portuguese Timor? The Portuguese Timorese themselves have already spoken of an understanding or 'pact' with Indonesia on cooperation and good neighbourliness. This idea would seem well worth studying and developing.

We feel that if we and Indonesia were to embark on cultivating good and influential relations with the Timorese there could be favourable prospects for stability in the territory. There would be obvious advantages to Indonesia and Australia in terms of both security and goodwill. The Timorese themselves would feel under less pressure to look outside the region for comfort and support. And we for our part would have established the basis for shaping events in ways that ensured that the contingencies which currently give rise to fears and anxieties about an independent Portuguese Timor did not materialise. As Indonesia will know, Mr Ramos Horta and other FRETILIN leaders have many times expressed their own goodwill to Indonesia and a desire to establish close and friendly relations with Indonesia and Australia. In the Australian view we should put this expression of good-neighbourliness to the test.

At the same time Portugal should be encouraged to keep its shoulder to the wheel in Portuguese Timor, at least until such time as we can be reasonably assured that an independent Portuguese Timor could emerge without disturbance to neighbouring countries. The policy implication is that both Indonesia and Australia should be trying to influence Portugal to reduce the pace of decolonisation at least to a pace which it is likely that the majority of Timorese themselves would prefer.

Australia would be willing to work with Indonesia in such an approach. Could we not sit down together and consider the practical scope of what might be achieved in such an endeavour? In the process fresh ideas could be expected to emerge which would help promote our common objectives of anchoring Portuguese Timor in a stable relationship with the rest of the region.

One thing we should like Indonesia to consider with us is whether our shared objective of 'containing' the Portuguese Timor problem might not be served through a coordinated program of economic assistance to Portuguese Timor. Australia has already offered to consider such assistance partly as a means of encouraging the Portuguese to maintain their own involvement. But aid can be looked at in a broader p[er]spective. If Indonesia were to join Australia in providing aid to Portuguese Timor it could be represented as assisting the Timorese to emerge from their isolation, making it unnecessary for them to look beyond Indonesia and Australia (and Portugal) for support.

F. Conclusions

We accept that difficulties will emerge from time to time as regards Portuguese Timor. It will be important to talk about them and to keep closely in touch. Indonesia's interests continue to weigh heavily in our own thinking. We should hope that Indonesia would similarly take Australia's interests into account. Thus far both our countries have tended to ignore what seems to be the increasing inevitability of the emergence of a new independent state on our doorstep (albeit under a fairly protracted timescale). In the past we have both tended to take a grudging attitude to that prospect fearing that an independent Portuguese Timor could be a source of regional instability. We believe that this is not a short-term prospect. We also believe it is within our means jointly through peaceful and constructive processes to ensure that it does not become a long-term prospect.

A positive approach for both Australia and Indonesia would therefore be to accept the challenge of helping in the process of decolonisation in Portuguese Timor, preferably in a cooperative effort. The Timorese leaders have been looking anxiously to Australia and Indonesia for some signs that we would be prepared to help them in their political and economic development. We should now put their professions of good-neighbourliness to the test.

At the same time we do not regard ourselves as a party principal, participating for example in tripartite negotiations. The chief responsibility rests with Portugal and the Timorese, with the Indonesians occupying next place because of their predominant interest. Our role will be to help all those concerned to work together.

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, viii]