Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 17 August 1975


Portuguese Timor

For Secretary from Woolcott

[matter omitted]1

  1. It is of course a decision for the Minister and the Prime Minister but I am somewhat concerned about the proposal that the Prime Minister might send a message to the President.
  2. As I stressed in Canberra last month we are dealing with a settled Indonesian policy to incorporate Timor, as even Malik admitted to me on Friday (para 9 of our O.JA12332 refers). I believe the Indonesians are well aware of our attitudes to Timor at all levels.
  3. Indonesia is simply not prepared to accept the risks they see to them in an independent Timor and I do not believe that we will be able to change their minds on this. We have in fact tried to do so. What Indonesia now looks to from Australia in the present situation is some understanding of their attitude and possible action to assist public understanding in Australia rather than action on our part which could contribute to criticism of Indonesia. They believe they will get this understanding elsewhere in the region, including from Japan and New Zealand.
  4. The Department seems to have attached more weight to my discussion with Malik than to the previous discussion with Yoga. This is probably right but only in relation to Indonesia’s immediate intentions. In the longer run, I consider that the comments in paras 22-29 in our 0.JA12013 are more relevant to the longer term situation we are likely to face. The ‘doves’, like Malik, hope that the incorporation of Timor can be effected in a reasonably presentable manner over a period of time. The ‘hawks’ do not believe Portugal will be able to control the situation or be willing to maintain a ‘measured and deliberate approach to decolonisation’ which would ‘eventually’ enable the people to decide their own future. Events in Angola and Portugal itself of course strengthen their hand. They maintain that the situation both in Lisbon and in Timor will deteriorate and that if it does it is better to move earlier rather than later.
  5. In considering whether or not there should be another message from the Prime Minister to the President we should also bear in mind that the President has not formally answered the Prime Minister’s March letter although it could be argued that he did so orally in Townsville.
  6. I am sure that the President would not welcome another letter on this subject at this stage, especially after what he said publicly in Parliament only yesterday (our O.JA1237 refers).4 Soeharto will be looking to Australia for understanding of what he, after very careful consideration, decides to do rather than what he might regard as a lecture or even a friendly caution.
  7. The Minister and Prime Minister may feel that domestic pressure puts Australia under an obligation to act. One answer to this would be that Australia has already made more representations to the Indonesian Government and been more active in making its serious concerns known to the Indonesians, than any other country. The upshot of this is that Australia has been singled out by the Indonesians in their planning discussions as the country (along with China) that will be the most vocal in the event of Indonesian intervention in Portuguese Timor. They know that reaction in Australia-unlike other ASEAN countries and New Zealand-will probably be their main problem. I doubt whether we can expect a better result than that.
  8. Other alternatives to a message-although I would also not recommend them-would be an answer to a question in the House or a statement, possibly at a press conference. These could assert that Australia cannot condone the use of force in Timor, nor could we accept the principle that a country can intervene in a neighbouring territory because of concern, however well based that concern might be, over the situation there. At the same time such an answer to a question in Parliament or from the press could concede that Indonesia has had a prolonged struggle for national unity and could not be expected to take lightly a breakdown in law and order in Portuguese Timor, especially when the colony is surrounded by and geographically very much part of the Indonesian Archipelago.
  9. While the situation in Portuguese Timor is not likely to get as bad as that in Angola it is going to be a mess for some time. From here I would suggest that our policies should be based on disengaging ourselves as far as possible from the Timor question; getting Australians presently there out of Timor; leave events to take their course; and if and when Indonesia does intervene act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show privately understanding to Indonesia of their problems. Perhaps we should also make an effort to secure through Parliament and the media greater understanding of our policy, and Indonesia’s, although we do not want to become apologists for Indonesia.
  10. The United States might have some influence on Indonesia at present as Indonesia really wants and needs United States assistance in its military re-equipment programme. But Ambassador Newsom told me last night that he is under instructions from Kissinger personally not to involve himself in discussions on Timor with the Indonesians on the grounds that the United States is involved in enough problems of greater importance overseas at present. The State Department has, we understand, instructed the Embassy to cut down its reporting on Timor.
  11. I will be seeing Newsom on Monday but his present attitude is that United States should keep out of the Portuguese Timor situation and allow events to take their course. His somewhat cynical comment to me was that if Indonesia were to intervene the United States would hope they would do so ‘effectively, quickly and not use our equipment’.
  12. We are all aware of the Australian defence interest in the Portuguese Timor situation but I wonder whether the Department has ascertained the interest of the Minister or the Department of Minerals and Energy in the Timor situation. It would seem to me that this Department might well have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border and that this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia by closing the present gap than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor.
  13. I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand but this is what national interest and foreign policy is all about, as even those countries with ideological bases for their foreign policies, like China and the Soviet Union, have acknowledged.
  14. I am sorry to raise all these issues again with you personally but I do have serious doubts about the wisdom of another Prime Ministerial message at this stage. You may wish to show this to Minister and Prime Minister and to repeat it to Cooper in Lisbon.


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

  • 1 The paragraph omitted refers to Woolcott’s decision to continue a planned visit to Sumatra.
  • 2 Document 167.
  • 3 Document 166.
  • 4 Soeharto welcomed Portugal’s decision to decolonise, particularly in regard to Timor. He also welcomed any move by the people of Portuguese Timor to integrate with Indonesia if they wished. The right of people to decide their own future was unquestionable, but he hoped the decolonisation would proceed smoothly without disturbances ‘which inevitably might affect Indonesian stability and that of South East Asia as well’. He reasserted that ‘absolutely we do not have any territorial ambitions whatsoever’.