431 Letter from Woolcott to Renouf

[Jakarta], 10 March 1976


Thank you for your quarterly letter of the 9 February which I received on my return from some much-needed leave in Bali although it was punctuated by the ASEAN Summit. I thought it was an excellent letter; frank, helpful and informative for all Heads of Missions in the field especially in the insights it gives on the transition from the policies of the former government to those of the present government and the difficulties we all face as a result of financial restraint.

I am glad the government places the importance it does on our relations with ASEAN and the ASEAN countries and that it will be giving priority to these relationships. We do need to watch this, however, as there is a danger of a contradiction developing between this objective and the development of our relations with Indonesia.

You will have seen my telegram JA52031 reporting a long and frank discussion with Benny Moerdani. In fact I toned down some of the things he said as I do not want to irritate the Minister. On the other hand I am obliged to report the thrust of his remarks, especially as he is not the only one putting this line over. We cannot expect Indonesia -which is the paramount influence in ASEAN- to help us forge links with ASEAN while we continue to be active in the vanguard of Indonesia's international critics on a matter which it sees as being of great national importance to it and of importance to the ASEAN region as a whole.

I think that the Minister has reached, or is very close to, the limits of having his cake and eating it with Indonesia; in other words of criticising Indonesia publicly while maintaining that we still attach the greatest importance to good relations with Indonesia and maintaining that little or no damage is being done to this relationship. Indonesia has intervened militarily in East Timor and has lied about it. But the situation and the events leading up to it are much more complex than that.

But while the active moral stand the government is taking will not alter the outcome of the Timor situation, it is now eroding the fragile and unnatural relationship which has been patiently built up with Indonesia over the last decade.

After the Minister's statement2 in the House and his interviews with Juddery and Hastings3 his reception in April could be fairly cool. For example, we hear on the grapevine that the President may not receive the Minister. We shall do our best to check this out very discreetly and, if necessary, change it; but we could be in for a difficult time.

At all levels the Indonesians have recently been showing increasing irritation, not only at our attitude to Timor, but to what seems to them to be the Minister's compulsion to repeat our policy in terms which they believe shows a lack of understanding of Indonesia's national interests and which they think has the effect of further stimulating-through responding to it-anti-Indonesian feeling in the Australian community. Meanwhile, it will not produce any change in Indonesian policy. They also find it difficult to understand why a government with such a large majority cannot act positively to blunt hostilities to Indonesia in Australia rather than just respond to it.

We have also been told on good authority that the President was displeased that the Minister produced the ideas of the Prime Minister's possible visit to Bali and of a force in East Timor without any prior soundings or warning. The press too is fairly hostile after the seven minute press conference in January. (But we should be able to rectify this without much difficulty.)

In addition to all this I cannot escape the feeling that we may also be painting ourselves into a comer through continuing to be active in the United Nations, when most others now seem to want to see the issue defused and in putting so much emphasis on a genuine act of self-determination, when we know that there will not be an act of self-determination which most Australians could accept as genuine. The fact is that most of the international community is now maintaining a discreet silence on East Timor because it accepts integration into Indonesia as [a] fait accompli.

I think it would be prudent, in these circumstances, if the Minister were to move away from this phrase and talk more about the need for the people of East Timor to decide their own future. There will be an act of self-determination of some sort and the Indonesians will try to ensure that it is as acceptable as possible. But their standards will be different from ours: and we need to recognise the obvious problems in conducting an act of self-determination in a place like East Timor which had only the most rudimentary political experience before going through the experience of civil war. Only a year ago we and Portugal were saying it would be five to eight years before a proper act of self-determination could be considered.

I think the government is correct in giving priority to our interests in the ASEAN area over interests in Indo China. This represents a change of emphasis in relation to the former government's policies but, I think, a sensible one in the present situation. But this, too, has its implications for our policy towards Indonesia. As I noted in my recent despatch 3176 on the ASEAN Summit, the future stability of the ASEAN region now lies, to a greater degree than ever before, in the hands of the non-communist governments of South East Asia although much will depend on North Vietnam's actual policy in the years ahead. And in these circumstances Australia has an increased interest in a stable group of nations between itself and China and Indo China.

[matter omitted]

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