5 Minute from Evans to Curtis

Canberra, 10 May 1974


Portuguese Timor

Re Secretary's note1

  1. There is no legal basis for an Indonesian claim to Portuguese Timor, and a transfer of Portuguese Timor to Indonesia could create procedural problems in the United Nations context. The legal issue is not the same as in Irian Jaya because Portuguese Timor was not part of the Netherlands East Indies, of which Indonesia is the successor state.
  2. Portuguese Timor is chiefly a problem for Indonesia. If Portuguese Timor were to become independent it could not sustain its present level of administration, services and productivity without substantial outside assistance, and, except in the unlikely event of a drawn-out armed struggle, would have little effective indigenous capacity for government except at the village level. There would be potential for a politically unstable state to emerge on one of Indonesia's land borders. Such a state could become a focus of Great Power rivalries and a rallying point for Indonesian irredentist movements. This would be obviously unacceptable to Indonesia, and for domestic political reasons probably to either party in Australia. For this reason, and because of its geographic proximity and its ethnic and cultural links with Indonesian Timor, the most logical long-term development is that it should become part of Indonesia.
  3. In the short-term the Indonesians have been happy to accept the status quo rather than risk the possibility of it becoming independent or having to tackle the procedural difficulties of transfer. The Indonesians are probably also concerned about suspicions of Indonesian expansionist ambitions that any initiatives might raise in the minds of other nearby countries, particularly Papua New Guinea, and also the costs it would have to bear for sustaining the present level of services and administration. Our information about Indonesian thinking is still sketchy.
  4. The most likely way in which the issue would come up for us is through the Committee of 24. However, in the absence of any national liberation movement either in Portuguese Timor or in Indonesia (apart from a nominal movement in Jakarta which is probably an Old Order relic) this would appear unlikely in the short-term, and it would be foolish for us in the light of the relative importance we attach to our bilateral relations with Indonesia to press the matter in the United Nations without thorough consultations with them. The outcome of an act of self-determination under United Nations auspices, in which continued membership of the Portuguese Federation would not be an option, is unpredictable, and presumably Indonesia would wish to bring about a situation in which they were reasonably certain that the Timorese would opt to join Indonesia.
  5. An additional reason for us not being too active on the Portuguese Timor issue is that the media, both in Australia and overseas, could interpret this as evidence of our self-interest in the seabed boundary dispute rather than an objective concern for the future of Portuguese Timor. It is, of course, for similar reasons that we have been reluctant to question the status of the French territories in the Pacific because of our case before the ICJ.2
  6. Although there is a good case for us not being too active at present on the future status of Portuguese Timor, we also need to be careful about exposing ourselves to the criticism that we are adopting a double standard towards the Portuguese territories in Africa and Timor. As a step towards formulating our own position, including a possible initiative on the future status of Portuguese Timor such as a more explicit reference to it in Fourth Committee resolutions on the Portuguese territories, we should initially consult the Indonesians and develop a clearer picture of their thinking. Because of the primary importance we attach to our bilateral relations with Indonesia, their close support on any initiative should be a precondition for our proceeding with it.

[NAA: AI838, 3038/10/1, vi]