396 Cablegram to Canberra

Peking, 7 January 1976



Portuguese Timor-China

  1. I endeavoured to draw from Cheng1 any indication whether Fretilin had sought or been granted assistance, particularly military assistance. Cheng stated that China's policy of support for popular independence movements was grounded in principle and was well-known but added that it was sometimes inconvenient to discuss with third parties the complexities involved in bilateral relations. Cheng said that if the Indonesians withdrew, China would continue to support Fretilin. If they remained it was difficult to say although the people could be expected to persist in heroic struggle against the aggressor.
  2. I suggested that the views of our two Governments had much in common, particularly opposition to armed intervention, although differences existed. We were concerned at the possible adverse reactions among countries of South East Asia to any suspicion of material, especially military, assistance from China. Indonesia had been apprehensive about outside interference and possible threat to its own stability and security. Chinese assistance to Fretilin would be cited by Indonesia as vindication of its action. I asked if China had considered the position of the USSR in this dispute and suggested that Chinese involvement might stimulate the Soviet Union to a more active interest in Indonesian affairs inimical to China's interest. Cheng responded that Australia should exert its utmost influence to secure the withdrawal of Indonesian troops and allow for peaceful settlement.


  1. The present Chinese stand seems dictated by the moral imperative that Indonesia should be condemned for open aggression, where previously China had no wish or intention of becoming involved. Once the Indonesian invasion forced them, reluctantly, to take a stand and issue statements, Fretilin was apparently the indigenous party most easily identified with, as it allowed consistency with their own policies. Silence might have been construed as condonement of the use of force in the settlement of disputes with implications for many countries in dispute with China. Failure of Indonesian Government to normalise its relations with China and constant assertion by Indonesia that it is China that interferes in the affairs of SEA countries has probably exacerbated Chinese feelings. China's wish for an independent East Timor seems much more determined now than it was two months ago.
  2. The Chinese now seem committed to the concept of independence for East Timor, to Fretilin as the 'progressive' party pursuing that goal and to support of Fretilin consistent with China's support of other independence movements in South East Asia. The Fretilin delegation's call on Ch'en Hai-lien,2 and visit to a PLA unit as well as Cheng's hedging with me on the question of military aid leads to the conclusion that the Chinese are contemplating material assistance. I think they are as yet undecided on the form and level of such assistance with Ch'iao Kuan-hua's3 remarks at the welcoming banquet on 29 December that 'the East Timorese people ... would surely win the final victory of national independence so long as they persevere in self-reliance and hard struggle ...' indicate that they would probably prefer to avoid any assistance beyond 'firing empty cannon' if they can.
  3. I would recommend therefore that before China's policy finally hardens, we take the opportunity to make the most effective representations we can to deflect China from deciding upon a more active involvement in the Timor dispute. Cheng emphasised to me several times China's basic ignorance of the situation, imputed superior knowledge to Australia and therefore regarded an exchange of views with us as valuable. There is still room for us to influence Chinese thinking by well-considered inputs of information, since their own assessment seems to have been made initially through reliance on press reports and most recently through contact with Fretilin.


[NAA: Al0463. 801/13/1111, xix]