393 Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 5 January 1976


Australia, Indonesia and East Timor

Early in 1976 and not later than at the time of the Minister's proposed visit to Jakarta, the Indonesian Government will be looking to the recently elected Australian Government to redefine present and future policy towards Indonesia, against the background of the Timor situation.

  1. An updated assessment of Indonesia's present policy towards Timor follows together with our assessment of the present state of Australian/Indonesian relations and some thoughts on how it seems from Jakarta that we might approach the policy issues now involved in the Australian-Indonesian relationship.

Indonesian Policy

  1. Indonesia will proceed to incorporate Timor. While President Soeharto1 will want incorporation to be achieved in as presentation ally acceptable a manner as possible, Indonesia will not be deterred from this fundamental policy objective.
  2. Indonesia regards this outcome as essential to its longer term national interest and, indeed, as being in the interests of the region as a whole. Indonesia has held this attitude consistently since some months before I arrived at this post last March. What has varied in response to political circumstances as they have evolved is the means to the unchanged end and the approach to the public presentation of its policy. Security and stability considerations, not a desire for territorial expansion per se, motivate Indonesian policy.
  3. Indonesia will be irritated but unmoved by pressure from other countries, including Australia, or from the United Nations to withdraw its forces, especially as it would see such a withdrawal as a recipe, not for a settlement of the Timor situation but, rather, as one for a recrudescence of continuing factional fighting and consequent instability. While Indonesia may pay public lip service to pressure from Australia or from the United Nations it will not welcome such pressure and it will not agree to any steps which it considers could have the effect of undermining its basic objective of incorporation. Moreover, Indonesia will actually be stiffened in its resolve to incorporate Timor, rather than weakened in it, by criticism of its actions in Timor by China, whether or not China is simply 'firing off empty canons' as Ch'iao Kuan-hua has suggested to Mr Fitzgerald (O.PK3850)2.
  4. Indonesia will conduct some act of self determination and, while the outcome is already clear, it will seek to make the act appear to be as genuine as possible.
  5. As we have already reported the Secretary-General's representative will in all probability be admitted to East Timor later this month, but his movements and his contacts with Fretilin will be carefully organised by Indonesia through the Provisional Government. The ICRC will also be allowed to resume its operations-and Australian pressure has helped to bring this about-although initially it will have to do so through the Indonesian Red Cross.
  6. While Indonesia may have a residual FRETILIN guerrilla problem on its hands, it will not be deterred by this and it is not inexperienced in coping with such problems. It has dealt with them effectively in the recent past in Sumatra, the Moluccas and West Irian.
  7. Indonesia also will argue with some logic that, in the longer historical perspective, Portuguese Timor was a colonial anachronism and that the island of Timor had been artificially and temporarily divided. Indonesia sees no intrinsic reason why the people of East Timor would not be as free and as well off, if they are united with the people of West Timor with whom they have certain cultural, linguistic and ethnic affinities, as they would be in a weak, factionalised, independent state. They also believe that the majority of the people of East Timor can be persuaded to accept this.
  8. Although Indonesia's means to its end have been mendacious and clumsy and have involved the use of obvious-if denied-force, the Indonesians would argue that they did not intend to act as they have done but were obliged to do so because of the breakdown of Portugal's decolonisation policy and because of FRETILIN's Unilateral Declaration of Independence. We believe that it is wrong to suggest that the invasion was timed to coincide with the Australian election or that it took place because Australia had given Indonesia the 'green light'. Indonesia had decided to act even if the lights were amber or red.
  9. Notwithstanding the matters of principle involved and however unjust it may seem, the reality on which Australia needs now to base its policy assumptions is that, whatever the difficulties Portuguese Timor will be incorporated into Indonesia. Despite what some media critics in Australia have written, Indonesia could not have been diverted from this course by Australia especially as the other countries of the region and the major powers either supported Indonesia's objective-if not its means to that objective-or acquiesced in Indonesian policy. Also because of this attitude by regional countries a regional solution not based on assisting Indonesia attain its objective was not, I think, a starter.
  10. Without the intervention of a great power on its side, (as for example the Soviet Union has intervened on the side of the MPLA in Angola) FRETILIN's cause has always been lost. Despite sympathy in Australia for the concept of an independent East Timor under FRETILIN control, FRETILIN's position is, we consider, now untenable. Room will however be found for those FRETILIN leaders like the Minister for Economic Affairs, Gonsalves, and those in Oecussi, who accept that their cause is now lost and decide to cooperate with Indonesia, UDT and APODETI. Those who encouraged FRETILIN to believe that it could adopt an anti-Indonesian attitude and establish by force a left-inclined independent state within the Indonesian archipelago did, in fact, seriously mislead FRETILIN. In retrospect, FRETILIN's only tenable option, in the absence of a powerful ally prepared to give it military support, was to seek an accommodation with Indonesia and the other political parties in Timor.

The present state of Australian/Indonesian relations

  1. Timor has become the first serious issue in Australian Indonesian relations since Confrontation.
  2. To what extent has the issue damaged Australian Indonesian relations?
  3. Reports in the Australian press that Australian/Indonesian relations have reached their lowest ebb since confrontation are, I believe, exaggerated. (But then I can recall no issue in foreign policy in the last twenty-five years on which the Australian media, with few exceptions, has been so lacking in objectivity.) Australian-Indonesian relations reached their high point about October 1974 after Wonosobo. They have, of course deteriorated somewhat since then. But that point of reference was so much higher and our contacts so much more extensive in October 1974 than they were in the pre-confrontation year of 1961, that the analogy is hardly reasonable.
  4. But some damage has been done to our relations and the widespread publicity for some of the allegations of Australian support for FRETILIN and for the two demonstrations against the Embassy in Jakarta will have had an effect throughout the country.
  5. Indonesia's confidence in Australia as a close regional friend has in fact been shaken somewhat. This results from Indonesia's understanding of Australia's Timor policy based on exchanges at the highest level between the two Governments, compared with the position reflected in our vote for the Timor resolution in the General Assembly and the Government's reactions to mounting public criticism of Indonesia and support for Fretilin in Australia.
  6. We believe Indonesia identified two main features in the previous Government's policy; first, integration with Indonesia was the most logical and preferable solution for the decolonization of East Timor; second, that any solution had to be the result of an internationally acceptable act of self-determination.
  7. Indonesia knew and understood that Australia would not condone the use of force and did not expect us to do so. But when Indonesia decided that force had to be used if integration were to be achieved and Indonesia's vital interests—as they see them—protected, Indonesia believed it had reason to hope that Australia would not make things more difficult for it than they would be anyway and that we would, like New Zealand, Japan, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea show more understanding of their approach to the problem. Alternatively, if we felt we could not do so, then the Indonesians hoped we would rest on the fact that we were not a party principal and like the United States and many other countries, including the Soviet Union, adopt as passive and uninvolved a role as possible.
  8. They founded these hopes on the often-expressed importance Australian Governments place on good relations with Indonesia, on Mr Whitlam's talks with President Soeharto in Townsville,3 on Mr Whitlam's statement to the Parliament on 26 August4 and on the present Prime Minister's message which I delivered to the President on 28 November.5 Indonesia also made the assumption that Australia as well as other countries in the region saw no advantages and some potential dangers in an independent East Timor.
  9. Despite Australia's attitude towards the paragraphs most critical of Indonesia, our vote on the Timor resolution was a shock to Indonesia from the President down. On a question which Indonesia considered touched its national interest and was vital to its future security and stability, Australia, alone among other regional countries and those with substantial relations with Indonesia, opposed Indonesia, even while countries like Finland and Austria abstained. Every cloud has its silver lining and personally I consider that our vote in the General Assembly, while a shock to the Indonesians, will, in retrospect, serve the useful purpose of reminding them that we are not a compliant neighbour but have principles and interests of our own. I suppose part of the problem is that the Indonesians believed that it was not just a question of our compliance with their policy objective but that it was our objective too-a shared objective-and that when they felt obliged to intervene to secure that objective, we took a leading role in criticising them for so doing.
  10. I appreciate that the Indonesians have underrated the strength of vocal public pressure in Australia on the issue. We have constantly sought to impress this point upon them and the importance, notwithstanding a shared objective, Australia placed on an act of self determination. We have also made the point that sensible ends could be damaged by bad means.
  11. But, regardless of how we may see them, the Indonesians interpreted the factors mentioned in paragraph 20 above as evidence of a greater understanding of their position than we eventually gave them.
  12. Accompanying Indonesian disillusionment with and uncertainty about our policy and our General Assembly vote, have been the union bans on Indonesian ships and on handling military stores for Indonesia, the threat of a ban against Garuda, the defacing of several Indonesian official premises in Australia and the general pro-Fretilin line adopted by much of the Australian news media. I think the Indonesian Government has accepted our explanation that, except for the defacing of premises, which they deeply resent and which they believe a stable and well organized government should be able to stop, the Australian Government cannot prevent these activities, although it looks for an active Government role in ameliorating their affects.
  13. On the practical side, however, no lasting damage has yet been done to our relations with Indonesia. Our aid activities here continue unhampered so far, although the Indonesians will watch carefully for any weakening of the Government's attitude towards maintaining these programs. Our access to Indonesian Ministers and officials remains good and, generally, officials and the people with whom we come into contact remain friendly and helpful.
  14. The shipping ban is an irritant which if continued and extended could become a serious problem. Because the Indonesian market is more important to Australia than the Australian market is to Indonesia, the balance of disadvantage in an extension of the bans would rest with Australia. If the Indonesians choose to—and there is no present indication that they do—they could make it very difficult for Australian investments in Indonesia and could even—if the relationship were to deteriorate—harass vessels (e.g. bulk carriers) taking Australian cargoes to South East Asia and Japan.
  15. The Indonesians are also worried about the possibility of restrictions on Garuda flights to Australia. I consider that if Garuda flights to Australia were stopped by union action, the Indonesians would take reciprocal action against Qantas. Refusal to allow overflights by Australian civil and military aircraft would be a drastic option open to Indonesia in this area which could have a very serious [e]ffect on Australia; but there is also no sign that this is contemplated yet although officials have mentioned the option.
  16. I believe that while they are disappointed at our recent policy on Timor the Indonesians will seek to minimise the damage to our relationship provided they are confident that the Australian Government is actively seeking to do likewise. It is in Indonesia's interests to have the best relationship possible with Australia; to have Australian support and understanding on the Timor question; to have a helpful, friendly neighbour to the south; and to enjoy unimpeded commerce with Australia.
  17. To achieve these ends I believe Indonesia will continue to seek:
    1. to persuade the Australian Government to follow a course more helpful to Indonesia on Timor and
    2. to limit, as far as possible, the effect of differences on the Timor issue on other aspects of our relations. (As we sought to do with France at the time of the French atmospheric tests.)
  18. The only reciprocal action the Indonesians have taken so far is to arrange two demonstrations at the Embassy, one in October and one [on] 16 December. But Indonesia is not, and in fact, has not in the past been prepared to sacrifice what it assesses as a vital national interest to maintain good relations with Australia. We know that in late 1974, when the President decided that East Timor should be incorporated within Indonesia, this decision was taken on the assumption that Australia and China were likely to be Indonesia's most severe critics.
  19. Australian policy and the actions of Australian unions are not going to divert Indonesia from its objective of incorporating East Timor. We consider that if the Indonesians assess that Australian actions, Government or non-Government, were likely to impede seriously the achievement of this objective or hurt Indonesia financially, then they would take action against Australian interests in Indonesia. But they would not abandon their decided objective.
  20. I do not think we are near this point at present. But our policy in the next few months will be watched closely by the Indonesians. The accession to power of the Fraser Government provided the opportunity to redefine our attitude to Indonesia and Timor and, in Indonesia's eyes to arrest the drift. Indonesia regards Australia's statement6 to the Security Council on 16 December, in contrast to our vote in the General Assembly, on the 12 December as a positive step in this direction. But I believe Indonesia now wants a clearer idea about the Australian Government's thinking on the future of Timor; in particular do we still favour its incorporation within Indonesia? Also, what did the Prime Minister mean in his message to the President when he referred to a solution 'appropriate' to Indonesia? They accept that Mr Fraser would not see the use of force as 'appropriate' but they would argue that, given FRETILIN's prior use of force, its UDI and Portugal's impotence, they were left with no alternative other than the abandonment of their basic objective. Indonesia wants to know whether, privately, we still sympathise with their objective, even if we cannot condone the means they have adopted in pursuit of it.
  21. Indonesia is also looking to the Government to breathe life into the Prime Minister's message, now the Government has been so strongly confirmed into office. Some indication of when the Prime Minister will follow up his expressed wish to develop a closer personal relationship with the President would also be valuable. (As you know it was tentatively planned that Mr Whit!am should visit Indonesia—Lake Toba in North Sumatra—for the next round of private talks with the President in about April 1976.)

Future Australian Policy

  1. It is of course for the government to decide the basic thrust of Australian policy towards Indonesia throughout 1976 and for the rest of this decade. Although important decisions need to be faced in respect of the continuation of the defence assistance programme, the size and nature of the next triennial civil aid programme and in the field of our relations in civil aviation, it is the Timor issue which, at present, provides the main focus of the Australian/Indonesian relationship.
  2. It is on the Timor issue that we face one of those broad foreign policy decisions which face most countries at one time or another. The government is confronted by a choice between a moral stance, based on condemnation of Indonesia for the invasion of East Timor and on the assertion of the inalienable right of the people of East Timor to self-determination, on the one hand, and a pragmatic and realistic acceptance of the longer term inevitabilities of the situation, on the other hand. It's a choice between what might be described as Wilsonian idealism or Kissingerian realism. The former is more proper and principled but the longer term national interest may well be better served by the latter. We do not think we can have it both ways. In other words we cannot continue, as we see the situation from Jakarta, to isolate ourselves from other regional countries by public criticism of Indonesia and expect this to do no real damage to our relations, especially as the Indonesians believe that Australian Government criticism of Indonesia fuels the fires of existing union, student and media criticism of Indonesia. However reprehensible their actions, they are also surprised that it is Australia more than any other country except China, Mozambique and Portugal which is putting them under pressure.
  3. The Indonesian government will therefore be looking to the Australian government to help in redressing what it regards as an anti-Indonesian pro-FRETILIN bias in the more vocal elements of the Australian community. This may become easier as FRETILIN's own position weakens.
  4. Indonesia will also be looking to the government to counter three theses which have gained some support in Australia and which they find false and offensive, namely that 'another Vietnam' is in the making in Timor, that if Indonesia's territorial appetite is 'appeased' in Timor, on the grounds of preserving stability, then Papua New Guinea and West Malaysia will be next on the list and, finally, the analogy with the Japanese occupation of East Timor during the war. The Indonesians would welcome some public statement by the Australian government disassociating itself from these concepts.
  5. The Vietnam analogy was first used by Ramos Horta as part of his campaign to stimulate support for FRETILIN in Australia. The Indonesians regard the analogy as bogus. In Vietnam, the great powers were directly involved in supporting contending forces in a country of 35 million people. In East Timor the great powers are not involved-yet at any rate-and Timor is, in global terms, an unimportant territory with a population less than 2% of Vietnam. The Indonesians would argue that the main similarity between Vietnam and Timor is that both were artificially and temporarily divided notwithstanding their different colonial histories.
  6. Both the Indonesians and the PNG government regard the PNG analogy as false. Indonesia sees Portuguese Timor as part of the Indonesian archipelago.It does not see PNG in this light. The fact is that it sees it as the eastern end of the archipelago as Malaysia and Thailand may be said to lie at the western end of Indonesia. Indonesia also regards PNG as a viable, independent state. It regards Portuguese Timor as a non-viable colonial anachronism. Indonesia also knows that Papua New Guinea is, to a substantial extent, underpinned by Australia. It knows this is not the case with East Timor. The Indonesians have also made a number of clear public statements welcoming and supporting PNG's independence and they were very pleased with Michael Somare's recent statement on Timor.7
  7. The Indonesians also reject the notion that because the Timorese helped Australian soldiers during the Second World War in Timor and that because they put up strong resistance to Japanese occupying forces, Australia owes the East Timorese support now and the East Timorese will put up an equally strong resistance to Indonesia. Indonesians contend that the East Timorese and the Australian forces were then facing a common enemy, Japan. Indonesia does not of course see itself as an enemy either of Australia or of the East Timorese people. In other parts of the archipelago, for example in Ambon, Indonesia gave the same support to Australians fighting against the Japanese as did the East Timorese. As far as guerrilla resistance is concerned the Japanese force represented a distant and invading army. Indonesia does not see its presence in East Timor in any comparable light. It sees its presence as being in response to calls for assistance from non-FRETILIN East Timorese who have much in common with the West Timorese oflndonesia. At the same time the Indonesians are well aware that before 11 August APODETI was not very popular and that a considerable effort will be required to win the genuine support of the East Timorese.
  8. Indonesia would also welcome the Australian Government making some public comments on the situation in Timor with emphasis on the practical realities of the situation. Without detracting from the principle of self-determination, some reference to the difficulties of conducting a proper act of self-determination in Timor might be made, as the former New Zealand Prime Minister8 has done, with possibly some reference to the fact that there never has been a proper act of self-determination in any Portuguese colony yet.


  1. Seen from the Jakarta Embassy there has always been a measure of inevitability about the outcome of the Timor situation. It is presumably now better that this outcome be reached as quickly as possible and with as little bloodshed as possible. In these circumstances we see no reason why the Australian Government could not acknowledge this by saying, quite fairly, that it accepted the realities of a situation which it inherited when it came to office.
  2. The government could say that the former government had made it clear that it believed that the incorporation of East Timor offered the best solution for the decolonisation of the Portuguese colony. Preferably, it could add that it sees the logic of this outcome but regrets all those elements in the situation which led to a resort to force.
  3. The government could also say that it inherited a situation in which all the countries of ASEAN and a number of other important countries also appeared to accept the view that the most logical outcome of the situation in East Timor lay in its integration with Indonesia.
  4. Looking ahead, the government could make the point that whatever happens, Australia needs to go on living with Indonesia and within the region. While this does not mean it needs to agree with Indonesia's every action; it does mean that Australia needs to weigh carefully its policy towards Indonesia in terms of Australia's long term national interests, including its position in the South East Asian region as a whole.
  5. There are several options open to the government now. The government could place public emphasis on the need for a fair act of self-determination (but it would need to bear in mind that, as in the case of all other Portuguese colonies, there will not be a genuine act of self-determination in Portuguese Timor).
  6. The government could also continue to give emphasis to the need for humanitarian assistance and food aid, depending on the actual needs. Beyond that, it could look ahead to some form of island-wide assistance program, possibly in the roads and bridges field, or some island-wide health program or economic development studies.
  7. The Indonesians would also welcome it if the government-without seeking to apologise for Indonesian use of force or its lack of sensitivity in handling some aspects of the Timor problem-could act to blunt hostility in the Australian community and to help the Australian public as a whole to acquire a more objective picture of the Timor situation.
  8. I appreciate the domestic pressures the government is still under (although the Indonesians will be unlikely to do so, given the magnitude of the government's majority) and I am aware of the positive response in the Australian media to the Minister's recent four statements and actions. But there are some dangers in too ready responses to domestic pressures in Australia. Already many prominent Indonesians feel that their national interests and the long term interests of the South East Asian region are being given less weight--only in Australia and not in any other country-than the wish to respond to the government's domestic critics. Also, there is a danger that if we make a number of statements which are not going to affect fundamentally Indonesia's course of action, and which they may interpret at least to some extent as domestic window dressing, then we could run the risk that we will lessen the impact of our official pronouncements here.
  9. One of the most regrettable and potentially serious consequences of the way in which the Timor issue has evolved is that latent fears and suspicions of Indonesia which were never very far below the surface in Australia-fears which date from the days of the 'yellow peril' syndrome, the absorption of West Irian and Sukarno's strident, nationalist foreign policy-have been rekindled and it could be some years before they fall into proper perspective again. We believe that the Australian Government should do whatever it can—as a conscious policy objective—to discourage the further resurgence of these fears in the Australian electorate, especially as they could have ramifications beyond Indonesia.
  10. Another not unimportant consequence of the Timor issue is, that Radio Australia, which has enjoyed a very large audience in Indonesia and a reputation for objectivity and accuracy for many years and which could be an instrument of considerable importance to us in Indonesia, has to some extent undermined its credibility with many Indonesians.
  11. Finally, we believe the emphasis should now be on accepting the inevitability of Timor's incorporation into Indonesia, letting the dust settle and looking ahead, while taking what steps we can in Australia to limit the further growth of hostility towards Indonesia within the Australian community.
  12. I regret cabling an assessment of this length but have done so because of the importance of the issue and the possibility that the Minister might visit Indonesia as soon as later this month.9

[NAA: A 10463, 801/13/11/1, xix]