85 Minute from Joseph to Feakes

Canberra, 14 February 1975


Portuguese Timor—Defence's Letter

The following comments are submitted in connexion with the letter from the Minister for Defence to Senator Willesee dated 11 February.1

  1. With much of the letter we can have no disagreement. In particular, we must share the concern about the implications domestically of military action by Indonesia in Portuguese Timor. However, we would not be as adamant as Defence that Indonesia could not get away with it. An arctic frost would no doubt descend on Australian relations with Indonesia with some of the consequences Defence has sketched for the links between us, including the important defence cooperation link. But I have a hankering [sic] suspicion that the reaction in the world at large, and even elsewhere in South-East Asia, would amount to no more than a flutter, soon to be forgotten in the deeper preoccupations about energy, food, the Mid-East and so on. Even in Australia, the Government, whatever its political persuasion, should have to consider how long it could afford to maintain frigid relations. The thaw could come much sooner than Defence seems to think.
  2. I think also that this Department would have to err still on the cautious side in regard to the imminence of any Indonesian military intervention. While recent developments and other evidence shows that the Indonesians are keeping their military options open, the stress in most of the reports we continue to receive is on the defensive character of the contingency planning.
  3. These observations apart, we really have no quarrel with the main thrust of Defence's argument, and I agree that a renewed effort has to be made to bring the Indonesians to recognise that an immoderate policy towards P. Timor cannot but provoke a sharp reaction in Australia. I also agree that we must try to bring Indonesia to recognise that many of its fears about an independent Portuguese Timor are unrealistic or irrational; and that we have to try to convince them that it would be better to adopt a pragmatic and cooperative attitude towards the emerging independence movement in Timor rather than risk driving it into an intransigent position. In this connexion, the point made at the bottom of page 5 of Defence's letter seems a very valid one. It does indeed appear that one of the principal factors behind the hostility of Horta and his FRETILIN group is the attitude and behaviour of Indonesia itself. It was probably shared concern about Indonesian intentions also, that brought FRETILIN and UDT together, now on a common platform of independence, rather than continuing links with Portugal as favoured by UDT earlier, and which from the Indonesian viewpoint probably represented no bad interim solution.
  4. These considerations, of course, have already been brought to the Indonesians' attention, including during the last round of official discussions. We might speculate, furthermore, that the force of our arguments, as stated at that time, had some impact in strengthening the hand of those in Jakarta advocating a moderate line. Nevertheless, as Defence says, there have been a number of subsequent developments, including recent military preparations that would allow Indonesia to take action at short notice.
  5. There should be two aspects to any further approach to the Indonesians: the stick and the carrot. To take the stick first, we have to ensure that the Indonesians have a clear understanding of the importance we attach to an act of self determination by the people of Portuguese Timor, and of the damage to our relationship should they resort to force. These points have already been made to the Indonesians, and I should certainly hope that 'they have chosen simply not to hear them'. In fact we have evidence in Mr Taylor's discussion with Mr Harry Tjan on 30 January2 that the message has not only penetrated to the highest levels of the Indonesian Government, but is not much liked.
  6. The second aspect of any new approach to the Indonesians must be a more positive one. We need to consider whether we cannot point to some constructive alternative to the present path of sterile hostility which the Indonesians seem bent on following towards the dominant political forces in Timor. The last paragraph on page 6 and the first on page 7 of Defence's letter are relevant. Indeed the same sort of thoughts were canvassed in our earlier submission.
  7. Defence propose-page 7 first paragraph-that Australia might say to the Indonesians that we should be ready to join with them in a program of political and economic support for Portuguese Timor to serve our common interests. We have to look carefully at the implications of this. If Indonesia would 'buy it'-and telegram JA76403 is relevant-the investment in effort and money might be worthwhile. But there is the other important element of our policy, namely that of non-involvement-of not allowing ourselves to be entrapped into a situation where we assume or are inveigled into assuming greater responsibility for Timor than we should wish and for Indonesia's relations with Timor which could nevertheless still tum sour. I see nothing in Defence's letter which should lead us to vary our preference for maintaining a cautious approach.
  8. Mind you it is probably all a matter of degree. The Minister has now given us the green light to mount a not insignificant (in Timor terms) aid program, with the broad hint that he would not be opposed to an even larger program should this serve Australia's political purposes. There would seem to be little disadvantage, and some merit, in elaborating the details of such a program in consultation with the Indonesians. We would, of course, have to play by ear, especially in the light of JA7640. Initially our consultations with the Indonesians might be merely pro forma. But an aid program should enable us to speak with some credibility when we suggest to the Indonesians that there is a different way to 'contain' Portuguese Timor, namely extending a helping hand to its emerging leaders, and making it unnecessary for Timor to look beyond our two countries (and presumably Portugal) for support.
  9. I am not sure how we can work into a presentation to the Indonesians the point you made to me yesterday. As I understand it, you believe Defence has overlooked the possibility that a radical, Marxist, regime could emerge in Portuguese Timor that did indeed evince a compulsion to meddle, not only in Indonesia, but perhaps among the aboriginal population in Northern Australia. Would we then view with the same apprehension an Indonesian takeover? The public reaction at large would surely be more muted, public opinion having rationalised that Indonesia had been sorely provoked. The policy implication, as we discussed, is that in any presentation to the Indonesians we might need to allow that, while their assessment of the potential threat seems unfounded, there is even a greater reason why they should exercise restraint-namely that they could take out Portuguese Timor at any time. There is therefore no need for them to think in pre-emptive terms; rather their policy should be to await developments in the knowledge that, if necessary, they could always bring an end to provocative behaviour by the Timorese.
  10. All this seems to make eminent good sense. But can we conjure up the words that would allow us to write such realpolitik into a ministerially-approved directive?


  1. We must welcome the prospect of developing a coordinated approach with Defence on Portuguese Timor. Defence's letter has been valuable in this respect, and I think we should offer to keep in close touch in the evolvement of our future policy. As a start, we could indicate on Monday next that we can live with most of the arguments identified by Defence, and that our intention would be to include them in the 'talking points' to be prepared for our new Ambassador.

[NAA: Al838, 3038/10/1, xvii]