418 Comments by South-East Asia Branch

[Canberra, 4 February 1976]1


Defence Committee: Timor

Essentially, and although there are some differences tending to suggestions for policy, Defence's paper need not be incompatible with our own.2 In particular, to the extent that it fits the Timor problem into a strategic environment, it serves a valuable purpose. It says much more flatly than we are able, that in Timor the Australian Government faces a fait accompli and that policy options are thus extremely limited. It also advances some pretty compelling arguments why Australia should leave it that way. Departmentally, we should find it difficult to disagree. If our own paper is somewhat more positive, this reflects our Minister's own more forward position.

  1. The question arises as to what extent the Department of Defence and the Defence Committee should be addressing policy issues in relation to Timor, most of which fall more appropriately into this Department's area of responsibility. Defence may have done better to draft a paper which simply set the strategic parameters to policy, and which did not go on to advocate particular lines of policy. Nevertheless I think we can live with the paper with a number of changes.

Part I

[matter omitted]

  1. The Department should have no quarrel with the sentiment in paragraph 8 that 'ultimately Indonesia appears to be more important to Australia than Australia to Indonesia'. But of course nor need we be too timid in regard to the Indonesians. If the relationship with Indonesia is to be worth anything it should be able to stand some strain especially on a matter of principle like Timor. The Indonesians themselves can be expected to act to minimise the damage to the relationship, and to do what they can to quarantine differences over Timor and to prevent the spilling over into other areas of the bilateral relationship. Something like this could go into the paper and perhaps into our own paper as well.

[matter omitted]

Part II

  1. This constitutes the core of the paper. Again there is much we would endorse, in particular the discussion of the national interest in paragraphs 19 and 20 (and again in paragraph 24) and the assessment that Indonesia cannot be diverted from its present course (paragraphs 21-22). It might be useful to add to the end of paragraph 25 something like the following: 'There would also be risks to President Soeharto's internal position were international pressures to lead him to consider withdrawing from Timor.'
  2. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the points in paragraphs 28 and 29. The evidence to date, including the highly successful activities of Ramos Horta and FRETILIN in soliciting moral and material support from groups in Australia, suggests that a major objective of any independent East Timor would be to continue to try to use Australia-and to manipulate Australian public opinion-to ensure continuing Australian support against Indonesian pressures. In effect, if East Timor were independent and under FRETILIN control, Australia's important relationship with Indonesia could become a hostage to FRETILIN and the seeds would be sown for continuing dissension and strains in the area of greatest strategic interest to us for years to come.
  3. The second sentence of paragraph 34 could be deleted. It implies that efforts made earlier might have deterred the Indonesians from their intervention in Timor. It is our assessment that the Indonesian policy was firmly fixed from at least October 1974, and probably well before then.
  4. The discussion of self-determination in paragraph 36 needs to make clear that what the Defence Committee is being asked to caution against is Australian identification with a phony act of self-determination. I do not think that the paper is attempting to take issue with a policy of support for a process of self-determination. It would in any event be quite impossible domestically to reverse the Government's public support for self-determination. Perhaps this needs to be made clear in the paper.
  5. There are obvious difficulties in the section on a UN peacekeeping force (paragraphs 37-38). Again, technically, the Department would not wish to contest Defence's arguments: the risks involved in participation would be very considerable and need to be spelled out, and Defence has a legitimate interest in this. But, the Minister (and as I understand, the Prime Minister) wishes to leave the option open and I guess we should seek this in the Defence Committee. Perhaps something like the following might be included as an additional paragraph: 'Despite all these problems it would be difficult for the Australian Government to stand aside if a viable proposal under the United Nations for a peacekeeping force were to emerge. Domestic opinion in Australia would not understand any Australian refusal to participate.'
  6. Of course we may be unnecessarily concerning ourselves about this matter. A viable proposal for a peacekeeping force assumes not only a UN decision (and probably in tum recommendations from Winspeare and Waldheim) but also Indonesian acquiescence. Our (and Defence's) assessment is that Indonesia would only agree to a UN force if its present policies had conclusively failed. The corollary is that there may not be too much risk in our being 'forthcoming' in regard to suggestions that Australia should be prepared to consider participation in a UN force. On the other hand were Defence's arguments to lead the Government to decide that we should be 'cautious' about, and 'weigh carefully', any proposal to participate in a UN force, then this Department should not lose too much sleep.

Indonesian Use of Force

  1. Australia has already registered its opposition to the use of force, in the United Nations and outside it. What more are we to do? I suppose that in any definitive statement in Parliament on Timor the Government should need to repeat its opposition to the use of force. But the idea of making a fresh diplomatic approach to the Indonesians does not appeal. Perhaps this section of the paper could be recast in terms of restating what Australia had already done, including what Mr Peacock had to say to the Indonesian leaders in Jakarta last month, and concluding that Australian interests would be served by maintaining our stated firm opposition to the use of force.
  2. The paper argues that it is the use of force which is the most objectiona[ble] feature of Indonesian policy, and that, unless the point is brought home clearly and unequivocally to the Indonesians, Indonesia might be tempted to act likewise in some other future situation of more vital concern to us. If Defence are firmly attached to this argument, then let us hope it can be stated in a more succinct way.
  3. Paragraph 44 canvasses the rather dangerous notion that we might consider distancing ourselves from Indonesia by postponing and reducing our aid programs, presumably the economic aid as well as the defence cooperation program.3 The Foreign Affairs interest would not be served by such postponement or reduction. In our own paper we have canvassed the option, but come out firmly against it, suggesting only that a possibility would be to seek an assurance that all our military aid not be used in Timor. (Thus extending what we did in the case of the Nomads.) Unless the Defence Committee does the same I should hope that paragraph 44 could be deleted, or recast in accordance with our own suggestion. (This would incidentally provide an opportunity to reiterate disapproval of the use of force.)


  1. The summary seems alright, although paragraph 51 might be redrafted as follows: 'But Indonesia's resort to arms cannot be disregarded and Australia should maintain its position, both publicly and privately, of opposition to the use of force.'
  2. Paragraph 50 reflects the policy shaped by this Department during the Whitlam Government. As long ago as December 1974, we urged on the then Government a policy of studied detachment and maintenance of the position that Australia was not a party principal. As you know, our present Minister believes that this policy was wrong. In any event, Mr Peacock will not adopt a low profile on Timor as now suggested in the Defence paper. But you may not wish to make an issue of this in the Defence Committee, beyond perhaps seeking deletion of 'disengage' and 'the parties principal'. It will do no harm for Ministers to see the arguments for non-involvement outlined again.
  3. Finally, the Defence paper recommends a certain bucketing of FRETILIN. This has been done before, but, not publicly, by the present Government. We had some damning things to say about FRETILIN in the Willesee statement of 30 October 1975.4

[NAA: A1838, 3038/1011, xliii]