83 Record of Conversation Between Willesee, Feakes and Joseph

Canberra, 13 February 1975


Portuguese Timor

On 11 February the Minister discussed the attached submission on Timor1 with Messrs Feakes and Joseph. Several points emerged:-

  1. The Minister expressed concern about the risks of embroilment in Timor. He agreed that so far as possible we should not allow ourselves to be ensnared in the problems of Timor. We could not take over Portugal's colonial burden. The responsibility for decolonisation was Portugal's alone.
  2. On the other hand, the Minister was aware of the risk that Portugal might simply throw in its hand in Timor. Portugal might well require some encouragement to stay. For us to encourage the Portuguese not to leave precipitately might require of us a more generous response on the matter of aid than we might otherwise wish to make. The amount of $1-$2 million mentioned in the submission did not seem excessive. Nor were these amounts necessarily to be regarded as a ceiling. We had to respond to a 'political need'; if necessary, the Minister would be prepared to argue in Cabinet for additional aid funding for Portuguese Timor. The Minister directed that paragraph 4 of the draft telegram to Lisbon2 be adjusted to reflect these views and he agreed to the suggestion that the terms of the redrafted paragraph should be cleared with the Aid Agency.
  3. The Minister considered that, although Portugal might be persuaded to soldier on in Timor, the drift of its present policy was disquieting. Dr Santos, for example, had evidently encouraged the UDT-FRETILIN merger; and he now appeared frightened by the consequences of his action. Present trends in Portuguese policy reinforced the Minister's concern that Australia should be careful about involvement. He wished that we were better informed about the development of opinion in Portuguese Timor but he agreed that we should not move to reopen the Consulate in Dili, although the situation might change, necessitating reconsideration of the question. For the present, however, the disadvantages of re-establishing the Consulate outweighed the advantages. The Minister speculated about the possibility of establishing some 'intelligence presence' in Timor as a means of providing us with independent information on what was happening on the ground there.
  4. The Minister was worried by the recent information suggesting military preparations by Indonesia. He also referred to the drift to greater authoritarianism in Indonesia exemplified by the recent arrest of Mochtar Lubis.3 He speculated that a point could be reached where Australia might need to place some public distance between itself and Indonesia. In this connexion he expressed reservations about the concept of providing aid under a 'trilateral umbrella'. What was meant by 'trilateral'? The Minister saw no objections to Australia's providing aid together with Indonesia and Portugal, or to consultations with the Portuguese and the Indonesians about aid, but he was opposed to joint Australian-Indonesian participation in projects involving, for instance, Australians and Indonesians working side by side on the same project in Timor. In general, he wished to guard against the danger than an Australian aid program in Portuguese Timor might leave the public impression that Australia's and Indonesia's overall policies towards Portuguese Timor were closely co-ordinated. If this notion were to gain credence, it would reduce our room for manoeuvre, should the Indonesians decide to move militarily to incorporate Portuguese Timor.
  5. The Minister felt we should be actively trying to deflect the Indonesians from an immoderate policy in Timor. We should be trying to allay their fears about an independent Timor, to encourage them to accept that independence was the most likely eventuality, and to bring them to recognise that, like us, Indonesia would have to learn to live with it. Mr Feakes noted that this aspect of our policy had been covered in the earlier submission.4 We had in fact already spoken in this vein to the Indonesians, taking the opportunity, among others, of the annual officials consultations between the Australian and Indonesian Foreign Ministries last October.5 Nevertheless it would be timely to repeat our advice to the Indonesians. It was intended that Mr Woolcott should take the opportunity of his introductory calls in Jakarta next month to reiterate our views. Further opportunities would be presented by the forthcoming visit to Australia of General Surono, Deputy Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, and by the6 talks scheduled to take place in the next month or two. There was also the possibility that President Soeharto might be coming to Australia in the next few months.
  6. Mr Joseph noted that, if our views were to influence the Indonesians, we should need to be able to point to some effective alternative strategy for them. We should need, for example, to put it to them that the best way of 'containing' an independent Timor might be to adopt positive political and economic policies designed to tie the territory to its regional environment, and by helping rather than hindering the fledgling independence movement, make it unnecessary for the latter to look beyond the region for support. But this implied a willingness of Australia to work alongside Indonesia in a number of fields, including the provision of economic aid. The Minister acknowledged this. The practical point that he wanted to make as recorded in (d) above was that Australian aid should be provided bilaterally, but that there would otherwise be no objections to consultations and co-ordination with Indonesia, or with Indonesia and Portugal, on a common approach to aid.
  7. The Minister agreed with the approach we were recommending in relation to the UDT-FRETILIN message to the United Nations. He wondered whether there might not be advantages in United Nations involvement. Mr Joseph demurred. He invited attention to the experience in Portugal's African territories where power had been, or was being, effectively handed over to a self-proclaimed nationalist group without an act of self-determination. If the Committee of Twenty-Four were to recommend or accept a similar approach in Portuguese Timor-an approach which had already been advocated by FRETILIN-this could be very awkward, and Indonesia might be provided with a pretext to act. Mr Feakes pointed out that we were already doing what we could to discourage the Portuguese from any thoughts of doing without an act of self-determination. Our Ambassador in Lisbon had stressed the point in his calls on Dr Santos on 4 and 6 February and would be asked to do so again in the further call that it is proposed he should make on Dr Santos this week.

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/1, vii]