John Birmingham’s essay, Appeasing Jakarta, with its powerful emotional backing, is an unusual contribution to understanding a sustained foreign policy failure. I share his central view that, ‘for as long as Indonesia remains an unstable and potentially authoritarian state, elemental political differences will inevitably preclude a close and abiding relationship,’ although it is hardly the ‘heresy’ Birmingham claims. You cannot build a stable relationship with an unstable partner. But unfortunately, like the poisoned wells in East Timor on which it draws, the essay’s appeal is adulterated.
Of course those who choose to live in the public limelight also risk exposure in the public stocks. Birmingham nevertheless debases his case on Australia’s handling of Timor by aiming so much argument ad hominem at Richard Woolcott and, to a surprisingly lesser extent, at Gough Whitlam. Not only that, but the substantive criticism of policy making around the 1975 crisis is skewed off course. Nor is it worth becoming maudlin about our moral failures over self-determination in Timor. Aboriginal Australians have been utterly failed on this score, and our record in PNG was not all we claimed.
Whitlam or Woolcott are no longer the issue, but by insisting that they are, and denying that he is doing so, Birmingham contributes more confusion, asks some wrong questions, and will leave many Australians as emotionally and intellectually distracted and divergently inclined over Timor as ever. Indonesia, not Timor, was and remains the central issue for Australia. The challenge, which Birmingham fails to meet, is to express the relevance of the two in terms to provide continuity of policy guidance.
Birmingham’s central assertion that Woolcott was wrong and culpable in assuming that an Indonesian takeover would provide a viable (even if vicious) outcome reflects an unsound analysis of policy history that shows little understanding of the world as it was in the 1970s, or of the then parameters of possibility for Australia. The contrary assumption would have been less valid because no alternative control over the territory was forthcoming, and certainly none acceptable to Indonesia, ASEAN or Australia at the end of 1975.
Earlier in 1975 I had represented the UN committee on decolonisation at the independence ceremonies for another Portuguese island territory, Sao Tome and Principe, and had flown down the West African coast from Lisbon with a ‘Red Admiral’ who, it was widely feared, would soon head a communist Portugal. His chances were spiked over that very weekend but Portugal’s future was a near-run thing at a crucial stage of the Cold War. The continuing fratricide that the Portuguese bequeathed to Timor as they left, the chance of a Communist grab for power in Dili, and regional responses to the crisis can only be understood, as they all occurred, in the dominant context of the Cold War. The motivating ideology was anti-Communism, not nationalism or anti-colonialism – despite the strength of the last. Birmingham assists the debate by referring to West Irian, but not by glossing over the consideration that the USA, having contrived to give that territory to Sukarno out of fear that otherwise he would pass Indonesia to Communist control, was not about to alienate the anti-Communist Suharto over Timor.
This was indeed a time of accelerated decolonisation under UN pressure. Its grab of Timor cost Indonesia the leadership in New York, which it was about to inherit from Tanzania, of UN activity in this key political area, and lost it considerable influence in the non-aligned world. But Suharto, Murdani, et al., were playing another game, with exclusively anti-Communist cards.
The year was also the one when we rushed to terminate the trusteeship agreement covering PNG. Seemingly there was a great divergence in Australian foreign policy during the last quarter of 1975, when we claimed to be as conscientious in thrusting self-determination on the peoples of PNG as we were callous in denying it to the East Timorese. This is an appearance which, given all the moralizing about Timor, needs to be questioned.
The Timor debate has centred on Woolcott’s juxtaposition of pragmatism with principle, in this case self-determination. But wouldn’t an examination of our approach to PNG that year suggest the same position? Independence was rushed at the last (Labor) minute in PNG, less because the territory was ready to make an informed and timely move to self-management than because we couldn’t wait to be seen to have discharged our colonial responsibilities or to escape the possibility of presiding over bloodshed there. We handed over in Port Moresby for pragmatic, politically correct reasons. We basked in New York as practising decolonisers. But as for faithful discharge of principle, even the UN representatives of the Soviet bloc satellites surmised that we were pulling out too soon.
The truth is we needed significantly more acceptance of international principle in both Timor and PNG precisely because that is where our longer term policy interests lay. We failed to bind ourselves, let alone the Indonesians, to eventual self-determination for the East Timorese, and to proceed on the basis that the future in Timor had to be relatively trouble free, something that could only be ensured with the consent of the governed. The central policy consideration ought to have been that Timor constituted too great a threat to maintaining, let alone developing, our relations with Indonesia to be left unattended. It was too dangerous to duck. The importance of Indonesia to Australia demanded that the issues in Timor be confronted, not conceded. By taking the immediate soft option we risked, and ultimately almost wrecked, the overall relationship. The failure of professional policy advising lay in the acceptance of that risk over Timor without re-insurance. Birmingham says that Woolcott was right to oppose a policy on Indonesia and Timor constructed in moral terms. But that was never the issue. The issue was the practical one that, without self-determination, Timor could forever impair much more important dealings with Jakarta. We should have been on the UN bandwagon from the beginning, pushing Indonesia to report on its administration of Timor, advocating regular UN visiting missions, preparing for a secure act of self-determination that would stick, and committing the Security Council to responsibility for it, right from the beginning. The UN would have afforded us some insulation from the heat generated by friction over Timor. The more we ducked self-determination, the more we placed at risk the very management of the vital relationship with Jakarta. And that is surely the central lesson of Timor from both 1975 and 1999. The line of principle was the only practical choice for a policy with any future.
Not all your readers will recognize that Bill Pritchett and Gordon Jockel, whom Birmingham quotes with approval in this case (as would I), were both Foreign Affairs (or pedantically External Affairs) born and bred. They are two of a number who illustrate the tunnel vision of a bureaucratic Canberra view, which has obviously misled Birmingham, that monolithic and errant advice from Foreign Affairs prevailed tragically in the Whitlam and Howard governments and in the time between them. Much contemporary comment that he quotes towards the end of the essay is petty and partisan. For a policy-oriented contribution it is also pointless. More’s the pity because Birmingham is so right in nailing an ‘aspirational’ approach to Indonesia policy. In no other foreign policy field have we suffered so grievously from this affliction. For almost thirty years of the relationship with the Republic of Indonesia we have fallen for the siren song of over-achievement there, that we can do better and bigger things than should ever have been believed or attempted. I share the contrary view that our Indonesia policy advising would be safer in the hands of specialists in worst-case scenarios. Paul Keating’s ‘historic’ security treaty with Suharto is the worst example of engorged policy towards Indonesia and Birmingham rightly nails it. Treated seriously, it had feet of clay. Treated suspiciously, the sniggers from the inner circle of Foreign Affairs and Defence negotiators in the loop that it would win the coming election against John Howard made it disgraceful diplomacy dishonestly presented.
The folly of promoting a pro-Defence view against the Foreign Affairs and Trade record lies largely in the overall record of the Defence group itself, which embraced its relationship with the Indonesian armed forces with a truly myopic zeal. So open were we to co-operating that the Indonesians were able to convert our human intelligence channels and the policy counsel of our too numerous colonels into an unfiltered conveyor belt on which what was loaded as Jakarta propaganda at one end came off as policy proposals to Canberra at the other. And at times the diplomatic and defence lines were indistinguishable. One of our ambassadors, also responsible for pulling the plug in PNG, promoted himself to Indonesia on the strength of knowing Murdani.
Because of inherent instability at the Indonesian end, and if you would believe Birmingham, chronic inability on the Australian side, and in fact in any event, the central task of Indonesia policy is the very management of this vital relationship. Not in the predictable future will it be to seek great new outcomes, save to maximize mutual respect. The secret of management will be to concentrate on identifying, and facing up to, the major obstacles of destructive capacity that arise along the way.
The Timor problem had finally to be surmounted in 1999 for the reason that it had reached the point of menacing the whole relationship with Indonesia. Had we been prepared to be agent for the Security Council before the referendum, the wounds to be healed with Indonesia, not to mention those in Timor, would have been smaller.
Over the next several years Indonesia may well need international help and intervention, some of it unwelcome, in order to remain intact. Aceh apart, the problems will be mainly in the east. This will be the period for Australia to make a contribution to Indonesia, and to our inescapable mutual relationship, marked by principle, internationalism, and domestic commitment, essentially in the spirit of our initial support for Indonesian independence. We need a fresh start, but the political leadership required is not in view.
Duncan Campbell is a former diplomat who was Minister in Australia's Mission to the UN in New York in 1975 responsible for decolonisation issues. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Australian.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 3, The Opportunist.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY