Bruce, I have just read your article in the Canberra Times of 17 September and I would like to offer a few comments, even from this distance and although it is no longer my task to attempt to assist the media in Australia.1 I must say that I do not, myself, regard the Government's policy on Timor as a 'nasty, narrow, cynical, obtuse and wholly dishonourable exercise'. Nor can I regard it as a blunder as serious as the manoeuvres involving Australia in Vietnam, as your article suggests. That all seems rather emotionally charged stuff and, knowing your objectivity, I am sure that you will not mind my putting a few ideas on this subject to you personally.
The core of the Timor problem for Australia lies in its ramifications for our future relationship with Indonesia and the South East Asian region as a whole. The situation is complicated in that there would appear to be a conflict between the principle of self-determination, which is enshrined in the United Nations Charter and is part of the ALP platform and what is, logically, the most sensible long term future for East Timor, namely its incorporation in Indonesia, which is regarded by all of the Governments in this neighbourhood as the best outcome of its decolonisation.
This potential conflict between principle, on the one hand, and national and regional interest, on the other, often overlooks the fact that Indonesia, and in particular the President, has wanted association with Indonesia to be the outcome of an act of self-determination, which would be prepared over a sufficient period of time to allow genuine East Timorese political forces to emerge.
Parts of our media tend to overlook this and cast the situation in rather crude black and white terms as a clash between a romanticised image ofFretilin as a progressive, anti-colonial, genuine, widely supported, national liberation movement, and an equally misleading image of Indonesia as a large, evil, fascist, expansionist brown-colonialist power intent on denying, by force, the former its right to self-determination. In the same over-simplified manner those, including members of the government and the department, who probe beyond these over-simplifications and see the case for integration, especially if it can be brought about in an acceptable manner, tend to be branded as dishonourable anti-self-determinationists. Some of this is based on latent fears of Indonesia, some on a delayed bad conscience about our acquiescence over West Irian, some on genuine left wing sentiments and some on political ill will towards the Prime Minister, mainly within his own party.
I do not for one moment think we should be obsequious towards Indonesia or that our policies towards Indonesia should be based on the assumption that we should not adopt policies which might offend Indonesia. We should always weigh carefully our responses in terms of our national interest. I was a supporter of our opposition to Indonesia at the time of 'konfrontasi' when Indonesia itself sought to stop the incorporation of Sarawak and Sabah into Malaysia. I feel that we earned some Indonesian respect for the stand we took then. Equally, we should not romanticise Fretilin into a genuine, broadly based national movement. It is of some interest that Fretilin has so far received no response to its various messages to the United Nations and no messages of support or congratulations on its 'victory' from any government, communist or non-communist. Strangely such support as it receives comes mainly from individual Australians.
There is no doubt in my mind that, in the long-term, the Australian/Indonesian relationship, along with our relations with Japan, the United States and possibly China, are destined to be the most important of our foreign policy relationships. We should not therefore lightly oppose what Indonesia, supported by all other countries in the region, sees as its national security interest. Long after Timor is settled one way or the other this will remain true.
Does anybody—except possibly a handful of Fretilin leaders—really want to see a weak, unstable, non-viable and impoverished mini-state in South East Asia? Naturally, none of the ASEAN countries want this and, whether or not their fears turn out to be justified, none of them want to see opportunities created for an extension of the Sino/Soviet conflict in the ASEAN region. While the Indonesians may exaggerate the dangers of this they are determined not to permit either an Angolan or Cuban type situation to develop in the middle of the Indonesian Archipelago; nor would Australia want such situations on its northern doorstep.
You refer to the lip service which the Government has given to the principle of self-determination. Self-determination is, of course, a principle which we all support and one is saddened by how often it is honoured in the breech and by its failures in Africa. But let us be honest. It is now highly unlikely that there will be a genuine act of self-determination in East Timor. This is a fact which we may not like but with which, as realists, we need to come to grips. The alternatives now seem to be a de facto Fretilin Government or the integration of East Timor into Indonesia. Neither will involve a genuine act of self-determination although both results could be achieved through what could appear to be such an act. Basically, this situation is Portugal's-not Indonesia's-fault. Given this Hobson's choice, I believe Australia's interests are better served by association with Indonesia than by independence. I know that what I am writing is pragmatic rather than principled; but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about, as even those countries with established ideological bases for their foreign policies have acknowledged. Let us not play the role of the naive conscience of Asia, seeking to preserve our virtues by placing the fig leaf of self-determination-when we know it is unlikely to happen anyway-over the geopolitical realities of the situation. Inevitably Timor will be part of Indonesia.
I would not normally use the objectives which you use to describe myself but, as a pragmatist and a realist making the best assessment I can of Australia's real long-term national interest in the South East Asian region, I must endorse the view-shared by the Prime Minister and, albeit with some reservations, by Senator Willesee and, as far as I know, by the alternative Prime Minister and now by the shadow Foreign Minister-that in the long-term the Australian/ Indonesian relationship is of overriding importance. Even if Indonesia were to move openly against Timor—which I do not believe it will-then I would still believe that it would be in our national interest to remain as uninvolved as possible and do our best to contain damage to the long-term Australian/Indonesian relationship as a result of a recrudescence of latent hostility to and fears of Indonesia in the Australian community. I believe influential persons-politicians, journalists, academics—who stimulate these fears and hostility are not doing Australia a service. Nobody likes to see big countries pushing small territories around or groups, however small, being denied self-determination but it is all much more complicated than that. And in the end our national interest and the inevitable geopolitical realities are bound to prevail over echoes of Wilsonian idealism.
There is a danger in this situation that, through the activities of a relatively small number of members of Parliament, journalists, and unionists, we shall come to be regarded in Indonesia as the only country in the region which is taking an unhelpful anti-Indonesian stand on this issue. Let us not lose our sense of perspective; let us not lose sight of Australia's fundamental interests.
I regret this letter has become so long but this problem does need to be treated in more depth and with more objectivity than I believe it was in your article of 17 September. Indonesia deserves more understanding of its response to the unwanted dilemma which, mainly due to Portugal, it now finds on its doorstep, than it has been receiving in our media.
[NAA: Al0463, 801/13/11/1, xiv]