21 Memorandum to Rogers

Canberra, 15 August 1974

CONFIDENTIAL

Defence Significance of Portuguese Timor

In response to your oral request of some months ago, I now attach a paper on the Defence Significance of Portuguese Timor.

  1. Please note that the status of this paper is only a departmental working paper. It has not been submitted to the Chiefs of Staff Committee or to the Defence Committee. It is hoped, however, that it will provide adequate guidance for your own departmental consideration of political policy.
  2. Should your considerations advance to the point of recommendation to the Government of political policy regarding the future status of Portuguese Timor, it would be necessary for the nation[al] defence interest to be taken into account. In this case, the Defence Committee's endorsement of the attached paper would have to be sought. We should be grateful, therefore, for timely advice in this respect so that a meeting of the Defence Committee could be arranged.

W. B. PRITCHETT
First Assistant Secretary
Defence Planning Division
[Department of Defence]

Attachment

Defence Significance of Portuguese Timor

[matter omitted]1

STRATEGIC SIGNIFICANCE TO AUSTRALIA

  1. The strategic significance of Portuguese Timor to Australia may be related to:
    1. Australia's sea lines of communication and developing offshore resources in the area;
    2. a major power threat to Australia;
    3. an Indonesian threat to Australia.

Sea Lines of Communication and Off-Shore Resources

  1. About 37 per cent by volume and 8 per cent by value of all Australian seaborne overseas trade passes through the eastern Indonesian archipelago; 96 per cent by volume and 75 per cent by value of the trade which passes through this area is between Australia and Japan. While other traffic could be re-routed without inconvenience, re-routing of the Australia/Japan trade (or any trade that might develop between the North & West of Australia & the other states of the North West Pacific) would result in increasing the length of this trade route by 50 to 100 per cent, dependent upon whether or not the traffic could traverse Torres Strait. Such an increase could seriously prejudice the prospect for the continuance of that trade.
  2. A power established in Portuguese Timor would be well placed by virtue of the availability of airfields to intensify the threat which its long range maritime forces might in any case pose to shipping serving Australia through the eastern Indonesian archipelago and to Australia's off-shore resources to the north-west of the continent. Indonesia, without access to Portuguese Timor, is already well placed, geographically if not by capability, to do this. An important objective of our defence policy should be to ensure that no country additional to Indonesia attains a position where it could readily exert major pressure on these important sea lines of communication or to our off-shore resources. Specifically in this context therefore Portuguese Timor assumes a strategic significance to Australia comparable with that of PNG and the Solomon Islands and eastern Indonesia generally.2

A Major Power Threat

  1. A major power posing a threat against Australia would necessarily possess a wide range of long range maritime capabilities of a relatively sophisticated character. Such capabilities would be adequate in themselves to pose a nuclear threat to Australia, irrespective of whether the major power had gained access to Portuguese Timor. To counter a major power nuclear threat, Australia or an allied power would require to pose a nuclear threat, over very long range, against the metropolitan territory of the major power concerned. Australian or allied access to Portuguese Timor would not significantly alter the effectiveness of such a nuclear counter-threat.
  2. Access to forward base areas in the island chain to the North of Australia would very greatly facilitate the posing of a conventional threat against Australia by a major power. Moreover, access specifically to Portuguese Timor by a major power would:
    1. greatly facilitate the application of strategic pressure against Indonesia to make additional base areas in eastern Indonesia available to it. Indonesia might well be susceptible to such pressure;
    2. seriously prejudice the potential military capability of Australia or its allies to support Indonesia against such pressure; and
    3. enable the development of air bases which would enhance a major power's operational capabilities as suggested at para 11 above.
  3. On the other hand, were access to Portuguese Timor to be available to Australia or an ally, especially if it were available irrespective of the strategic posture of Indonesia, the possibility of stiffening Indonesian resistance to pressure would be improved and deterrence of major power physical intrusion into eastern Indonesia would be increased.
  4. It is concluded that Australian (and allied) access to Portuguese Timor in circumstances of threat by a major power would:
    1. have negligible significance in relation to the deterrence of a nuclear threat against Australia;
    2. afford to Australia (and any ally) substantial strategic advantage in the deterrence of a conventional threat;
    3. to the extent that access were available irrespective of the strategic posture of Indonesia, afford Australia significantly improved prospects of stiffening Indonesian will and ability to resist major power threats to eastern Indonesia; and
    4. marginally lessen the threat to our lines of communication and off-shore resource areas off the north-west coast of Australia.

An Indonesian Threat

  1. Were Indonesia to threaten Australia with conventional forces it would have negligible military need to gain access to Portuguese Timor in order to enforce its threat. Were Australia to have the option to deploy forces into Portuguese Timor in Australia's own defence, however, a significant potential counter-threat to Indonesian forces and lines of communication in eastern Indonesia and in the Timor sea could be posed. To ensure that option, however, Australia would need to have assured bases in Portuguese Timor and secure lines of communication to support its forces deployed from the mainland. Assuming this could be achieved, Indonesia would need to nullify the effects of Australian operations as a necessary pre-condition for the mounting of conventional attacks on north-western Australia in particular and to a significant degree on north-eastern Australia.
  2. Were Indonesia to pose a nuclear threat against Australia it would have available to it facilities in the eastern Indonesian area adequate to support that threat.
  3. An Indonesian nuclear threat to Australia could be countered only by a nuclear counter-threat. A nuclear armed Australia or a nuclear armed ally of Australia could readily pose a nuclear threat against Indonesia without access to Portuguese Timor; such access would however add marginally both to the improvement of Australian defence against the threat and to the effectiveness of the Australian/allied nuclear counter-threat.
  4. It is concluded that, in the context of threat against Australia from Indonesia, the potentiality of Australian (or allied) access to Portuguese Timor would:
    1. add significantly to the possibility of deterrence of an Indonesian conventional threat, especially in relation to North West Australia.
    2. add only marginally to the deterrence of an Indonesian nuclear threat.

THE DEFENCE INTEREST IN THE POLITICAL STATUS OF PORTUGUESE TIMOR

  1. The conclusions in paras 18 and 22 above suggest a substantial Australian Defence interest in maximising the future option for Australia to deploy military capabilities into Portuguese Timor irrespective of the strategic posture of Indonesia and/or of potentially hostile major powers and irrespective of whether Australia would decide at the time to exploit that option militarily. Australia thus has a clear Defence interest in opposing the political or military domination of Portuguese Timor by either major powers or by Indonesia.
  2. It appears likely that any Portuguese Government would wish to maintain a strictly neutral posture as between Australia on the one hand and an enemy or potential enemy (including Indonesia) of Australia on the other. It would thus seem likely that Portuguese Timor under Portuguese control would deny to Australia the option of exploiting Portuguese Timor's strategic position in Australia's defence.
  3. While Portuguese Timor remains an overseas territory of Portugal there is a possibility that Indonesia or another foreign power could provide support to an independence movement or seize or gain military access to the territory under the guise of liberating it from colonial domination. It will remain in our Defence interest to preclude as far as possible such a development. [An act of self determination which resulted in the emergence of]3 an independent Portuguese Timor would provide no grounds for external intervention under guise of liberation from colonial domination.
  4. As an independent state Portuguese Timor, like an independent PNG, would be inherently weak and thus sensitive to external pressures, especially from Indonesia.
  5. Out of regard for their individual strategic interests in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans all major powers will tend to share Australia's interest in avoiding the emergence of any major power into a dominant political position in Portuguese Timor. Australia could therefore hope to receive a range of major power support in inhibiting such a development. Likewise it could expect the close co-operation of a friendly Indonesia if such a situation were to threaten.
  6. On the other hand there could well be little major power resistance to the development of Indonesian political dominance in the territory if that were Indonesia's aim. Such an Indonesian aim could conceivably be pursued as an ostensible response to a threat of subversion emanating from an independent Portuguese Timor. In pursuing its interests in this matter however Indonesia would risk international disapproval. [Given its concern to maintain strategic co-operation with Australia, Indonesia] would also require to be as sensitive to Australian policy and strategic interests in Portuguese Timor as already in PNG.
  7. To the above must be added that if Australia were to acquiesce in Indonesia gaining control of Portuguese Timor through pressure or subversion the [credibility] of Australian support of PNG against Indonesian pressure could be seriously and overtly damaged. [There could be adverse implications for the effectiveness of our political and defence policies in PNG and elsewhere in the South Pacific.]4
  8. In circumstances, not at present foreseen or assessed to be likely, where a third power might threaten to gain a position of dominant influence in Portuguese Timor it would be appropriate for Australia to concert with Indonesia (so long as that country remains friendly [and strategically cooperative] with Australia) and with other interested powers, in resisting the intrusion of that third power.
  9. It is concluded that Australia's Defence interest in inhibiting the political domination of Portuguese Timor by any major power and by Indonesia would be best advanced if Portuguese Timor were to emerge from Portuguese tutelage as an independent state with the right to seek, in time of threat to its independence the support of the international community including Australia and Indonesia acting in co-operation.5
  10. [ It is recognised that, depending inter alia upon the views of the Indonesian Government, inflexible pursuit by Australia of the interest defined in para 3I above could lead to difficulties in our relations with the Indonesian Government and could undermine our strategic cooperation with that Government. Australia has an important interest in avoiding this.
  11. Consultations on this matter with Indonesia will need to take account of the depth and intensity of Indonesian views as they develop. Meanwhile in any consultation it will be important for Australia to establish clearly at the outset that
    1. the strategic significance of Portuguese Timor to Australia gives Australia a deep interest in the future status of the territory and
    2. without prejudice to our concern to see Indonesia[n] strategic interests satisfied as well as our own, we would, for our own part, favour the emergence of the territory through self determination, as an independent state.]

CONCLUSIONS

  1. [It is concluded] that:
    1. Portuguese Timor could be an important factor in the security of our important sea lines of communication through the eastern Indonesian archipelago and to the security of north-western Australia and to our contiguous off-shore resource areas;
    2. A foreign power with access to bases in the territory would have the potential to threaten those interests;
    3. Australian access to bases [or facilities] in the territory could enhance our position in the context of an emerging threat to Australia from Indonesia or an emerging threat to Indonesia and/or Australia from a major power;
    4. The exclusion of major powers and of Indonesia from Portuguese Timor and thus the maximisation of Australia's option to deploy forces to Portuguese Timor would be best served by its development [through self-determination] as an independent state;
    5. In circumstances-not at present foreseen or assessed to be likely-where a third power might threaten to gain a position of dominant influence in Portuguese Timor it would be appropriate for Australia to concert with Indonesia (so long as that country remains friendly to Australia) and with other interested powers, in resisting the intrusion of that third power.
    6. [There is a need to retain some flexibility in Australia's diplomatic position in the matter and to avoid prejudicing prospects of strategic cooperation with Indonesia in particular.
    7. Indonesia should be informed at the outset of any consultations on the matter that
      1. the strategic significance of Portuguese Timor to Australia gives Australia a deep interest in the future status of the Territory; and
      2. without prejudice to our concern to see Indonesian strategic interests satisfied as well as our own, we would, for our own part, favour the emergence of the territory through self determination, as an independent state.]

[NAA: Al838, 696/5, iii]