Subject: Canberra's Indonesia Policy Revealed in Declassified Papers

The Jakarta Post Friday, January 19, 2007


Declassified Papers a Background to Canberra's Indonesia Policy

by S.P. Seth, Sydney

The recent release of the 1976 cabinet papers after thirty years shed interesting light on Australia's East Timor policy in the months following the Portuguese colony's incorporation into Indonesia. And gives one a better understanding of Canberra's Indonesia policy.

But first the 1976 cabinet papers, with extracts published in the Australian press relating to East Timor. What comes out in these papers is that Canberra had no real objection to East Timor's incorporation into Indonesia, but would have liked it to involve a process of self-determination. But since Jakarta had already gone ahead militarily, Canberra might as well live with it.

At the same time, the United States had expressed understanding of Indonesia's compulsions in the matter at the highest level during President Gerald Ford's brief December 1975 Jakarta visit.

As Andrew Peacock, then foreign minister, argued in a cabinet submission paper, "There is no tangible Australian national interest e.g. trade or security, directly involved in East Timor. If anything, the strategic preference would be for integration..."; these being Cold War years.

And a high level defense committee warned against Fretilin's "hardcore leadership" and their links with "radical international elements", if East Timor were to become independent under their control.

It said in February 1976, "Indonesia is a power with long term potential for a significant assault against Australia." In other words, why annoy a potentially powerful neighbor when Canberra couldn't have influenced its policy on East Timor anyway.

As the report elaborated: "Attempts to deny Indonesia its objective (of integrating East Timor) and secure its co-operation in a military withdrawal from East Timor and in a genuine act of self-determination are therefore likely to meet intractable political and practical difficulties and ultimately to prove futile."

For added emphasis, a strategic defense review pointed out, "As the alternative is an essentially weak state, open to outside interference, the defense interest is served by East Timor's incorporation in Indonesia."

These formulations on Indonesia's East Timor policy at the time say much about Australia's perspective on its large northern neighbor. Which meant that as Indonesia is a large and potentially powerful neighbor, and could pose a serious threat to Australia's security, it would need careful managing.

This has been a core element in Australia's Indonesia policy since the mid-seventies. As East Timor had the potential of becoming a contentious issue, Canberra, at times, went out of the way to accommodate Indonesian sensitivities. It helped, though, that Indonesian and Australian strategic interests on the issue were, more or less, similar.

In time Australia recognized Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor. Thereafter, the political relationship between the two countries continued to expand, reinforced further with the 1995 defense pact. This gave the relationship a security dimension, enabling Canberra to create a network of political and military ties.

Canberra had apparently come to the conclusion that Indonesia's authoritarian political system had come to stay under Soeharto, and that its military will have even more clout in any post-Soeharto order. Hence, the need for Canberra to create a web of relationships at the top political and military level for the foreseeable future.

But the unexpected happened in the wake of the Asian economic meltdown which affected Indonesia seriously, thus creating a politically untenable situation for the Indonesian autocrat. With the Cold War already over, Soeharto had no benefactors in the West, and the International Monetary Fund wasn't being helpful.

Soeharto's resignation in 1998 created an extremely fluid situation, with his successor, Habibie, pushing a referendum on East Timor.

Which Indonesia lost in 1999, creating a serious crisis in its relations with Australia. Australia's triumphal conduct, akin to a military victory, and superior moral tone looked like a political betrayal to most Indonesians; after having all through supported Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor.

East Timor, which had been a cementing factor in Indonesian-Australian relations since the mid-seventies, now created a serious rupture between the two countries in the late-nineties.

And it was not until the tsunami which ravaged Aceh, when Australia provided generous assistance, that the relations started to recover. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Australia visit, in the wake of the tsunami disaster, seemed to have created a new dawn.

But when Canberra granted asylum status to Papuans, some of them political activists, it brought back Indonesia's bad memories about Canberra's "betrayal" over East Timor.

The recently signed Treaty of Lombok, creating a framework for security cooperation between the two countries, is an attempt to reignite the old fervor.

Australia has undertaken not to encourage or support "any person or entity which constitutes a threat to" Indonesia's territorial integrity. In other words, it is committed to Indonesia's sovereignty over Papua, the issue uppermost with the Indonesian government.

Like East Timor in the seventies when Cold War created strategic convergence between Australia/United States and Indonesia as revealed in the cabinet documents, the threat of terrorism is an important shared concern. The security treaty says that the two countries will do "everything possible individually and jointly to eradicate international terrorism and extremism."

President Yudhoyono's anti-terrorism credentials are impeccable and this is very important considering that Indonesia has experienced some ghastly terrorist acts like the Bali bombings. Such shared interests to fight global terrorism provide a solid basis for creating enduring relations between the two countries.

But without a multifaceted relationship across the immediate issues and concerns, Indonesia-Australia ties will always remain prone to seismic shocks of the political kind.

The writer is a freelance writer based in Sydney.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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