417 Department of Defence Paper

Canberra, [4 February 1976]1



Australian Relations with Indonesia and the Issue of East Timor


  1. Australia's relations with Indonesia are strongly influenced by political and strategic factors, as in the past arose regarding Dutch New Guinea and Indonesia's confrontation of Malaysia. This paper discusses such factors, with particular reference in Part I (pp 5-9) to South East Asia and Papua New Guinea. Against this wider context it discusses (Part II, pp 16-25) immediate policy issues regarding East Timor.

[matter omitted]


  1. The discussion of East Timor developments in this Part of the paper is based on the intelligence contained in the paper entitled 'Assessment of the Timor situation' issued by the National Intelligence Committee (NIC) on 27th January, 1976.
  2. No Australian national interest, such as trade or security, is directly affected by the situation in East Timor. In terms of some hypothetical future conflict with Indonesia, or a third power operating from there, it has been assessed in the Defence Department that it is a matter of military indifference whether Indonesia absorbs the territory or it becomes independent.
  3. The NIC assesses, however, that Indonesian integrationist policy is 'firmly set' and that there is 'little scope for flexibility'. Any prospect of political negotiation with Fretilin is 'virtually unacceptable'. Indonesia is also unlikely to accept a UN role that would impede the achievement of Indonesian objectives or open the way for other countries to involve themselves.
  4. Attempts to deny Indonesia its objective and to secure its co-operation in a military withdrawal from East Timor and in a genuine act of self-determination are therefore likely to meet intractable political and practical difficulties and ultimately to prove futile. Given this, such attempts would appear to risk Indonesian resentment and, if pressed, animosity.

The Australian Interest

  1. The Australian interest rests on the following considerations.
  2. As noted above, no tangible national Australian interest is directly involved in East Timor and likely to benefit or suffer from developments there.
  3. Australia's strategic interests could suffer, however, were prolongation of conflict in East Timor to attract the involvement of powers such as China or Vietnam by way of aid to Fretilin or by interference in Indonesia itself, were the Timor embroilment so to distract and weaken Indonesia as to offer worthwhile opportunity for this. Similarly, it would be of concern to Australia were continuing conflict in East Timor to generate mounting international interest to settle the dispute, directly involving more remote countries of varying political sympathies in the affairs of Australia's neighbourhood, and often in support of Fretilin. Particularly in these circumstances, elements in Indonesia could seek to replace President Suharto with a more combative type of leader.
  4. On the NIC assessment, however, the East Timor situation is developing in the opposite direction from these prospects. Indonesia's political and military operations are proceeding effectively. Within months Indonesia can be expected to be in a position of firm control over the principal administrative centres of East Timor, most of the coastal areas and all ports of sea and air entry, to which any substantial external supplies to Fretilin would have to be delivered. Indonesia's military and political ascendency in these respects is likely to reduce the scope for external involvement and, with this, international interest would appear likely to decline-apart from routine denunciations by Indonesia's political opponents. President Suharto's position is at present unchallenged and on the NIC assessment it appears likely to remain so.
  5. Now that Fretilin has become politically radicalised and established connections with Peking and Hanoi, which we know have recently been considering providing it with material aid, it would not be in Australia's strategic interests that Indonesia be frustrated in the absorption of East Timor or that this process be made complicated or delayed. This would enhance the Fretilin group's political status and both encourage and facilitate its development of connections with countries interested in supporting it against Indonesia. There would be risk for Australia of much more substantial involvement with East Timor of countries such as China and Vietnam, and of this continuing into the long term. Such developments would constitute a considerable and unfavourable change in Australia's strategic circumstances. If Australian policy had been instrumental in bringing such developments about, there could be unwelcome complications in our relations with Indonesia.
  6. Were East Timor now to achieve independence under a Fretilin regime, it would be poor and weak. Its relations with Indonesia could be expected to be unfriendly. The territory could become a source of political, and potentially strategic, instability in an area closely neighbouring Australia. There are already risks in this respect in the present situation. However, given the progress of Indonesian operations and the prospects for a substantial consolidation of Indonesian control without too protracted a delay, these risks are judged to be less than those arising from attempts to frustrate Indonesia or from the establishment of an independent East Timor.
  7. In particular, insofar as movement in these latter directions supported activity by Australian elements politically opposed to Indonesia, there could be significant irritation of Australian­ Indonesian relations.
  8. A prominent Australian role in opposition to Indonesian interests in Timor could prejudge co-operation over bilateral matters (eg, Indonesian fishermen in Australian waters, the Timor Sea boundary, communications through the archipelago). If strain were prolonged, there could be growing political criticism from Indonesia, with response from various Australian quarters, risking difficulty for important Australian international interests, as earlier discussed (paras [6-8], Part I). Short of this, Australian policy could be seen by Indonesia as ineffectual and lacking regard for common interests.
  9. From the strategic point of view Australia therefore shares Indonesia's concerns about the future of East Timor. Although not accepting that these concerns were in fact urgent enough to have ruled out political handling of the situation and warranted seizure of the territory by force, the Australian strategic preference, in the light both of the assessment of the Timor situation itself and of the wider factors in Australia's relations with Indonesia, is now for the early integration of East Timor into Indonesia and policy acceptance that this now involves the continuation of Indonesia's present operations to their planned conclusion.
  10. Despite the foregoing, three factors suggest that Australia respond in some way to the situation in Timor. These are:
    1. domestic reaction, which display some genuine concern at Indonesia's use of force and the denial of Timorese self-determination-as distinct from elements that are exploiting the situation to pursue opposition to Indonesia's present regime on political grounds. In this respect it is to be noted that, even given the Indonesian military and political successes expected, there is a possibility of guerilla-type operations by Fretilin and of delay in a final political settlement for an indefinite period (para 19 of the NIC paper). During this period, the Government can expect continuing domestic political interest regarding Timor, particularly from elements sympathetic to Fretilin;
    2. political principle, which supports the right of self-determination for colonial populations;
    3. strategic concern at Indonesia's use of force to annex a neighbouring territory.
  11. It is for policy decision whether the strategic interest stated above (para 31) should be overridden by considerations in these respects.

Policy Considerations

The Scope for Policy

  1. On the NIC assessment, the Indonesians will not permit any interference with their activity in East Timor. Whether earlier they might have been genuinely persuaded to self-determination or some other political process is now irrelevant. Any opportunity for this passed many months ago. Australian policy that did not acknowledge these limitations could therefore now appear both futile and conducive to strained relations with Indonesia.
  2. An attempt to maximise influence on Indonesia would appear to involve Australia in co-operation with such countries as China and Vietnam, which would not be in Australia's strategic interests, especially in relation to Indonesia. There would be no prospect of adequate support for Australia from its traditional friends and regional associates, most of whom either support Indonesia or do not wish to become closely involved in the situation. (The US in particular has clearly indicated Indonesia's importance to it in the wider regional context and its desire not to jeopardise relations by action against Indonesia over East Timor. The Administration appears confident that it will not come under Congressional pressure on the matter.)

Self-Determination in Future

  1. Some act of self-determination, but after Indonesia has secured effective control in East Timor, remains a professed object of Indonesian policy, and it appears the only feasible culmination of UN efforts to promote a settlement in Timor-assuming that there was adequate support in the UN for such efforts. Australia could hardly oppose such a course; but it would seem desirable to recognise the probably inadequacy of any act of self-determination that might be finally arranged, and to be careful about the degree of Australian association with it. It can be argued that Australia should not be a principal party to an act that was not genuine and merely formalised a fait accompli achieved by force of arms. Such connivance is not called for by the Australian interest, particularly when Australia has repeatedly urged Indonesia not to resort to arms. It could also prejudice Australian prospects of support in the UN from Mrican and other critics oflndonesia at some time when this could be important to our interests. It is further argued that there are no advantages of a humanitarian or political kind that Australian participation in support of self-determination could gain for the East Timorese that would outweigh the disadvantages indicated.

A UN Peace-Keeping Force

  1. The NIC assessment together with the foregoing considerations strongly suggests that any Australian support for an initiative to introduce a UN peace-keeping force into Timor, in order to establish conditions for a political process and genuine act of self-determination, would be neither effective nor politic.lt is not in Australia's interests to support in this way the now radicalised Fretilin and its foreign associations (however strongly it may be held that it was Indonesia's inflexibility that nurtured Fretilin 's extremism). It would not be in our interest to clash with the Indonesians over an initiative for peace-keeping. It is the Defence judgement that such a clash would be inevitable unless we were prepared to advocate or accept conditions that, in practice, consolidated the Indonesians' grip and facilitated their final absorption of the territory by force-and the implications of that course by Australia are indicated in the foregoing paragraph. It appears highly unlikely that Indonesia would withdraw its own regular forces unless it was first assured of those conditions. There must also be doubts about the practicability of securing in the UN the necessary political and legal basis, as well as the financial support, for any peace-keeping force.
  2. Were, nevertheless, a proposal for peace-keeping to gain acceptance, it would be desirable that any Australian participation be subordinate and of a character that would not risk the Australian Defence Force's direct involvement in the maintenance or restoration of 'order' by use of military force, particularly against Indonesian forces, whether declared or 'volunteer'. It should be noted that any peace-keeping operation in East Timor would be much more difficult and hazardous than, for example, the UN operations on the Kashmir border or in the Middle East, because of the terrain in East Timor and the inadequacy of the administrative and political infrastructure for stable control of a cease-fire. A precondition for successful policing is that influential political leadership on both sides has renounced further use of force and has authority over its followers. If any Australian soldiers were attacked by uncontrolled, irregular personnel, they would be bound to retaliate. If Indonesians were involved the implications would be more serious. A 'police' force is a misnomer in such circumstances.

Indonesian Use of Force

  1. Australian policy earlier to promote a political process in East Timor and to avoid Indonesia's use offorce has failed. Any further approach to Indonesia in these respects has, on the NIC assessment, no prospect of success, at least until after the Indonesians are confident that they can control a political process. This involves their prior elimination of Fretilin as a viable political force-by defeat, repression and the winning of Fretilin elements to the Indonesian side. In neither case-Indonesia's rejection of an Australian approach or Indonesian acceptance, because its military objectives had been substantially achieved and the way was clear to some essentially spurious act of politicallegitimisation-does Australian intervention to persuade the Indonesians from further use of force commend itself.
  2. Nevertheless, the Australian Government may consider that it cannot simply accept, and persuade the nation to accept, Indonesia's use of force to annex a neighbouring territory. To do so would be to condone a standard of conduct that could in some future circumstances directly jeopardise the security interests of Australia or PNG. It would also reduce inhibitions on those elements in the Indonesian regime (and they are likely to be influential in any Indonesian regime) that lack scruple about the use of military force to secure Indonesia's national interests across its frontiers.

An Australian Objection to Indonesian Use of Force

  1. A clear statement to Indonesia of Australia's objections to the use of force in East Timor therefore needs to be made. This appears the central point of concern for Australia in the Timor situation as it now has developed. There appear to be no other Australian interests significantly affected or that Australia could now effectively pursue.
  2. The Indonesians could be expected to respond to such an objection that they had had no realistic alternative-and also that they had throughout kept the Australian Government well informed of their policy and plans. They could also refer to earlier expressions of Australian support for their objective and query whether the Australian attitude to this had changed. It would seem important to resist involvement in argument about these matters, as also any substantive discussion of how to handle the Timor question in future. The substantive content of any Australian approach should be confined to an appropriate statement of Australia's basic position, that it is strongly of the view that neighbourhood affairs should be settled by political process, however unpromising and protracted, and not by resort to military force. This position were best not obscured by substantive discussion of other aspects of the Timor situation.
  3. There could appear to be an apparent inconsistency in an Australian objection to force and a policy posture that did not carry the objection to active opposition against Indonesia's continuing military operations and control in East Timor. The Indonesians could seek to exploit this. On this aspect also it might be best to avoid substantive response. However, to recognise as inevitable (and, indeed-see paras 27-30-as now desirable in the strategic interest) that the Indonesians will not be deflected from military action to achieve their political objective now that they have gone so far on this course is not inconsistent with an objection in principle to the resort to that force in preference to political process. Beyond the upholding of a standard of conduct in neighbouring affairs, there would be implicit in the Australian position proposed the risk for the Indonesians that, if in some future situation they resorted to force rather than political process, Australia might take action against Indonesia to make good its objection. However the Indonesians might respond to such an approach, this consideration should not be lost on them.
  4. It could be desirable to give tangible support to the approach suggested by some measured distancing of Australia from Indonesia, expressed, for example, in a postponement and reduction of aid programs.
  5. This approach would not satisfy all elements of Australian opinion. But, particularly if Governmental reservations about Fretilin were publicly stated, it would satisfy many. (These reservations need not be confined to the question of political alignment, but could, eg, query how representative of the East Timorese population Fretilin was, draw attention to its own militant and inflexible posture and indicate doubt about its ability to give the Timorese people good government and a stable relationship with Indonesia.)
  6. The approach suggested would be in accord with the practical realities of the situation, as assessed by the NIC, and with the consequent lack of scope for constructive political action. It would focus Australian policy on that element of the situation that most relates to the Australian national interest, provide a firm basis for Government action and counter the dominant presentation in Australia of the East Timor issue in terms of Fretilin interests.
  7. The fact that there is a new Government in Australia, which was not associated with earlier discussions between Australia and Indonesia on this subject and can take a new and limited position, allows the approach proposed to be put forward as a practical proposition.


  1. In summary, it is argued that the policy options for Australia in respect of the East Timor situation are very limited. For practical purposes Australia is faced with an Indonesian fait accompli.It is now too late for any useful purpose to be served by attempts to alter the course of developments: intervention in the Timor issue will either meet with Indonesian resistance or merely serve to facilitate and confirm Indonesia's take-over of the territory (and be seen publicly to be doing this).
  2. It is not in Australia's strategic interest to support Fretilin orin any way to encourage and facilitate the involvement with East Timor of political forces unfriendly to Indonesia (and potentially to Australia). It is not in Australia's interest for the Timor situation to become a source of regional instability or of prolonged strain in Australia's relations with Indonesia. The strategic preference is for the territory's early integration into Indonesia.
  3. As far as the handling of the Timor issue itself is concerned, Australia therefore appears to have no realistic and acceptable alternative but to disengage and maintain a low profile, leaving the running to the parties principal—Indonesia, the Timorese and the relevant UN organs or agencies—while supporting, but not becoming a prominent party to, any political process under the UN that may develop to confirm Indonesia's absorption of the territory.
  4. But Indonesia's use of force should not be disregarded and a clear Australian objection should be lodged with the Indonesian Government, and made public, as the position of the new Australian Government.
  5. Whichever way the situation develops, early final settlement appears unlikely. The Government therefore can expect continuing domestic interest in it, and pressure from quarters sympathetic on ideological or other grounds to the Fretilin group. Together with a clear objection to Indonesia's resort to force in East Timor, it would seem desirable for the Government to give the Australian public its own views about the Fretilin group and whether or not it should command Australian support.

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/13/1, ANNEX 1]