16 Letter from Feakes to Furlonger

Canberra, 26 July 1974


Portuguese Timor

I am sorry to have delayed in replying to your letter of 3 July about Portuguese Timor.1 While you were on leave in Australia, John McCredie and I wrote to each other on that subject and you may be interested to have the following extract of what I had to say to him about our general outlook on Portuguese Timor.

[matter omitted]2

The information conveyed to Jan Arriens by Harry Tjan was most valuable, but I think that you would agree that we should not encourage the Indonesians in any way to talk to us along those lines. Australia could not afford to be associated with an Indonesian covert operation because of the risk of exposure, if for no other reason. Any hint of Australian involvement or even acquiescence would be damaging to the government's reputation overseas, to its domestic credibility and to the confidence in us of small countries, especially PNG. In terms of domestic opinion, there are enough problems in maintaining our present policy towards Indonesia without the complication of association with a doubtful operation in Timor which would scarcely be consistent with the government's support for self-determination in Portuguese colonial territories.

I wonder whether the Indonesians may not under-estimate the difficulties of a covert operation in Portuguese Timor and the risk of exposure. They are not in administrative control of Portuguese Timor unlike West Irian, and they might find themselves with very little international support. The suggestion that Australia might help by 'conditioning' opinion in countries such as PNG makes me nervous. It indicates a serious Indonesian misreading of the character of Australia's approach to foreign policy: the sort of point I have in mind is that depending on the conclusions that we reach about Australia's interests in Timor, we may yet find ourselves offering the Indonesians diplomatic support on the condition that they do not resort to subversive activities or pressure in Portuguese Timor.

What the Indonesians do in Portuguese Timor has, of course, implications which go beyond our own relations with them. The Indonesians seem to realise the danger to their regional policies if they overreach themselves over Portuguese Timor-hence their emphasis on not seeming to be expansionist. One can guess at the thinking underlying Harry Tjan's idea. It might go like this: Indonesia can have the best of both worlds by employing covert tactics for expansion in Timor; OPSUS has the necessary skills and has demonstrated them in West Irian; the agency or political interest that secured Portuguese Timor for Indonesia would gain great kudos domestically. It seems to us that the danger which this approach illustrates is that self-interest may distort rational thinking and the assessment of risks.

At this stage, as will be apparent from the extract from my letter to John McCredie, we cannot endorse the bare proposition that the absorption of Portuguese Timor into Indonesia would probably best suit Australia's interests. It might not, for example, if the means used to bring about such a result seriously damaged Indonesia's regional standing and aroused fears of Indonesian expansionism. The alternative solution of an independent Portuguese Timor is at least conceivable. As I suggested to John McCredie, it should not be beyond the capacity of Australia and Indonesia together to contain the problems that an independent Portuguese Timor might present. There is much to be said for patience all round. A deliberate approach to the future of Portuguese Timor should suit the interests of the Timorese themselves and of the external powers principally concerned-Portugal, Indonesia and Australia. The lapse of time that careful preparation for self-determination would entail should increase the chances of the Timorese agreeing to association with Indonesia.

As I say policy towards Portuguese Timor is still being considered but the Prime Minister will be fully briefed and we look forward to a substantive exchange of views between him and President Soeharto. Our preliminary view is that Australia should not adopt firm and binding positions at this stage. We should prefer to see how the situation develops. In the meantime you might like to consider the following points to put to the Indonesians as opportunity offers in Jakarta:-

  1. Australia is publicly committed to the principle of self-determination in Portuguese colonial territories. We have not yet come to firm conclusions about our policy towards Portuguese Timor. We should prefer to see how the situation develops. There is no need for hasty decision or action. The lapse of time that deliberate preparation for self-determination in Timor would entail should suit Indonesia's interests by increasing its chances of persuading the Timorese to agree to association with Indonesia. In considering policy, we shall keep Indonesia's interests in mind. We look forward to a fruitful exchange of views on Portuguese Timor between the Prime Minister and President Soeharto.
  2. Australia is sympathetic to Indonesian interests in Portuguese Timor. But it considers an approach based on covert operations and efforts to manipulate opinion in Portuguese Timor carries serious risks. Such operations could easily become exposed or misfire. Exposure would be damaging to Indonesia's standing in the region, not least in Australia, and to the credibility of its foreign policy. (This point might be used only to Harry Tjan or other Indonesians who raise the possibility of covert operations in Timor-)3

You might be interested to see Alan Renouf's record of his conversation with Peter Wilenski.4

[NAA: A11443, [1]]