121 Letter from Woolcott to Whitlam

Canberra,12 April 1975


Meeting with President Soeharto -Townsville April 1975

You may find it helpful to have the following comments on the current atmosphere in Jakarta and on the present approach of the President and his close advisers to Australia, for your meeting with him in Townsville.

Present Relations with Australia

  1. When I arrived in Jakarta on 3 March I detected a trace of coolness towards Australia. This was relative and based, I believe, on what the Indonesians regarded as an over-reaction in Australia to reports that Indonesia was on the verge of invading Timor. The President and leading Indonesians have tended to expect understanding from Australia. I suspect they were disappointed in this case.
  2. On my arrival the indications at that stage were that the President might not accept your invitation to visit North Queensland and that he would not receive the Deputy Prime Minister on his recent visit to Jakarta.2 I was also unable to hand over your letter personally in advance of presenting my credentials, although I was able to present the latter only five days after my arrival.
  3. I believe that at the meetings in Yogyakarta and Wonosobo our relationship with Indonesia reached a new high point. Since that time the Indonesians have, however, been uneasy about us because, I believe, we alone of the countries in South East Asia had taken a strong position on what we assumed to be their policy towards Timor and because of Dr Cairns' involvement in the recent Amnesty International delegation's visit.

[matter omitted]

  1. It is in this context of growing uneasiness in Australia, including amongst some members of Parliament, about our large and restless neighbour and the future course of both its domestic and foreign policies, that what I believe to be the overriding long-term importance of the Australian/Indonesian relationship needs to be seen. Whatever Government is in power in Indonesia and, indeed, whatever Government might be in power in Australia, the price of a hostile or unstable Indonesia for Australia would be very high, not only for us but for the Indonesian people themselves.
  2. A theme I have adopted in my discussions so far in Jakarta, including those with the President, is that as our relations mature and pass beyond the mutual search for goodwill, it is natural that issues and problems will arise between the two countries as they did in the early sixties. Any such problems should however be seen by both sides in the context of the mutual interest of both countries in maintaining a long-term cooperative relationship.
  3. The President's decision to visit Queensland at fairly short notice emphasises that he continues to attach very considerable importance to strengthening the developing partnership with Australia and that he continues to want to treat Australia as a honorary member of a sort of South East Asian Club, an approach he has not adopted towards any other non-Asian country.
  4. The President continues to believe that both Indonesia and Australia are destined to play a significant role in the development of the West Pacific region. Also he will increasingly look to us for assistance in the fields of agricultural development, resources and technological assistance. Furlonger used to say that the President and those around him regarded Australia as unique amongst countries of Western origin in the degree of understanding that we showed towards the problems of Indonesia and the region. This attitude is of great value to us and it would be a pity if we were to lose it.
  5. While we are committed to such principles as human rights and self-determination, I do not think we should, from the relative comfort of our Continental pulpit, lecture the Indonesians on how to conduct their domestic affairs. Despite our proper concern for these issues I believe we should seek to avoid a meddlesome attitude or, as I have said before, seek to become the conscience of Asia. We need to show some understanding of Indonesia's complex social and political problems; of its recent history, especially in the early sixties. As Dr Cairns said in his recent discussion with President Soeharto, any assumptions about Indonesia based on the easier and less complex life in Australia are completely unjustified.

[matter omitted]


  1. I remain somewhat worried about Timor. We could be working ourselves into a position where we are impaling ourselves on the hook of self-determination. While this is a principle to which most countries including Australia and Indonesia adhere, the fact remains that there have been few proper acts of self-determination in recent times and none so far in any of Portugal's other former colonies such as Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola. To demand it too stridently in Timor at present can be equated with a demand for independence. Do we want actually to encourage an independent East Timor? I would doubt it. It is not wanted by Indonesia; nor, I believe, by any of the other countries in the region. This is why other neighbouring countries remained silent about Timor in February and March and why, in contrast, we appeared to become front-runners in support of Timorese independence.
  2. My own belief is that we should seek to disengage ourselves as much as possible from the Timor situation which could well become pretty messy. Indonesia is very unlikely to mount a military invasion of Timor unless it regards the situation there as hopeless and as a real threat to its security. But the Indonesian Government has not abandoned its ultimate objective of integrating Timor and it will pursue both covert and overt activity to influence Portuguese Timor to decide in favour of integration at the eventual act of self-determination. It will also urge the Portuguese Government to assist in this process as the British Government assisted in bringing Sabah and Sarawak into Malaysia in 1962/63. It would be unfortunate if we were to come to be regarded as, politically, a party principal in Timor, when the real parties principal are the people of Timor and the Governments of Portugal and Indonesia, and allow ourselves to be drawn into a situation in which we could find ourselves as the only, or the main, country in the region obstructing what Indonesia and its other neighbours would see as Indonesia's legitimate national interest.

Domestic Situation in Australia

  1. The President will be very interested in your personal views on the political situation in Australia. The President clearly feels that he has a personal bond with you and he may also now feel that he has broken the ice with Dr Cairns. Ali Murtopo told me on Saturday that the Indonesian Government's 'strategy in its dealings with Australia was to support the Whitlam Government'. (He was seeing me at the request of the President.) As you know, I believe our long-term relations with Indonesia are sufficiently important that there should be a bipartisan approach to Indonesia-a view I know you and Dr Cairns share. This does not alter the fact that the Indonesians, although they may at first have had some anxiety about the change of Government in December 1972, now feel they have a stake in the continuation in office of the Labor Government. Against this background, your second personal meeting with Soeharto in seven months will be a further test of whether, despite sensitivities on both sides in what is still fundamentally a fragile relationship, the relationship can be further consolidated. I would hope that the relationship can become both bipartisan and irreversible. Although President Soeharto is pragmatic and hard-headed, I would agree with Furlonger that he would be sensitive to any sign of our backing away either from him personally or from his regime. As I have noted there were signs of this when I arrived in Jakarta. His Government's image in Australia has unattractive features and there are some domestic political dangers in over-identifying with Soeharto personally. The problem remains, however, that he is very much in control of the situation and, barring accidents, is liable to remain so for several years. If you personally, or the Government, were to adopt a more detached approach this would be misinterpreted in a society in which leadership is highly personalised and Javanese pride important.

[Matter omitted]

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1/2, ii]