408 Note on Timor

[January 1976]


Timor is now a major preoccupation. In a sense, however, it represents a distortion in our Foreign policy perspectives. Australia has no vital interests at stake in Timor. Whether it is independent or part of Indonesia is irrelevant to Australia. Indeed, what interests we have there, deriving from the Territory's proximity, its nearness to shipping routes and to our seabed resources zone, and some small residual Australian commercial interests, would all be well served by its incorporation into Indonesia.

But this is to ignore the strength of public sentiment in Australia. Timor has become a Vietnam in reverse with public opinion pressing the Government to plunge itself more deeply into the Timor morass than the Government would wish. A good deal of the pressure comes from the Australian left-ironically the very groups who were most vociferous in demanding Australia out of Vietnam. They now want us 'in' to Timor. More recently demands for a more involved Australian policy have been joined by Church and other like-minded groups.

Yet Australia cannot permit itself to become a party principal in the Timor conflict. To do so would place us on a collision course with Indonesia. It could quickly lead to Australia assuming responsibilities in Timor which could bedevil relations with Indonesia for years to come. We could find ourselves back in an F111 syndrome1 defeating years of patient diplomacy aimed at building bridges of confidence between Australia and its South East Asian neighbours.

Australia thus has no national interest in involving itself too deeply in Timor. Nor have we any international obligation to do so. We are not the administering power. We have no duty to Lisbon or to the Timorese to exercise a delegated authority on Portugal's behalf. It could be said that Australia is already 'out on a limb' on East Timor. No other country has been as active or involved, certainly no other country in the region, most of which are inclined to avert their eyes or even to encourage the Indonesians to get on with the job of taking over Timor. In a sense Timor is a casualty of the fall out from Indo China. Indonesia's ASEAN partners accept Indonesia's contention that in the wake of Viet Nam it cannot tolerate a potentially unstable and probably leftist dominated, East Timor in its midst.

The Australian Government will continue to be under heavy domestic pressure in the weeks ahead on Timor. But realistically we probably now have to accept that integration of East Timor into Indonesia is fast becoming an accomplished fact. The Indonesians have throughout remained unresponsive to suggestions from us about how their interests might be protected short of incorporation. It is unlikely that the Australian Government would now wish to be able to thwart this objective. Indeed incorporation is probably now the best solution from our point of view. Otherwise we should have a running sore in the region poisoning relations between ourselves and the Indonesians for years to come.

The Australian Government will nevertheless continue to support publicly the need for a process of self determination in Timor. If it does nothing else it may help ensure that the Indonesians go about absorbing Timor in as humane and civilised manner as possible. It is also in the interests of regional relations and indeed of Indonesia itself that it effects the incorporation of Timor in as legally correct and internationally acceptable a manner as possible.

In the United Nations we shall not play the role of an apologist for Indonesia but, equally, we shall wish to show understanding of its special position and not be in the forefront of its critics.

We shall also do what we can to contain any change to the long-termAustralian/Indonesian relationship caused by Indonesia's military intervention. This implies an appro[ach] to bilateral relations which emphasises 'business as usual', including in the aid and defence co-operation areas. We shall similarly do what we can to blunt the growth of anti-Indonesian sentiment in Australia. While recognising that the sources of domestic pressure—the Trade Unions, the newspapers, the television etc—are not susceptible to Government control, there may be some scope for trying to shape public opinion rather than simply reacting to it.2

[NAA: Al838, 3038/13/2/1, xii]