Issues in Australian Foreign Policy

By Albinski, Henry S. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Issues in Australian Foreign Policy


Albinski, Henry S., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In a December 1998 letter to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, Prime Minister John Howard urged Indonesia to offer East Timor autonomy and subsequent self-determination. Opportunity seemed at hand to resolve long-festering violence in the territory, remove a complication in Australian-Indonesian relations, and enable post-Suharto Indonesia, still struggling under financial crisis, to concentrate on democratization and other reforms.

Howard's message influenced Habibie's decision to proceed with a "consultative" act of self-determination.(1) Contrary to Australia's expressed preference and that of most of the East Timorese pro-independence leadership, a self-determination plebiscite was to be held forthwith, not after an extended period of conciliation-building autonomy. Australia surmised that to have resisted Habibie's surprise offer could have jeopardized Indonesia's willingness to allow self-determination altogether. A vote in East Timor was scheduled for early August, overseen by an unarmed United Nations Assistance Mission for East Timor (UNAMET), prominently staffed and financially supported by Australia and enlarged from original scale through Australia's strong representations with Habibie. With increasing evidence of the Indonesian military's (TNI) connivance, pro-Indonesian militias undertook a fierce campaign of intimidation against the populace, and UNAMET personnel were set upon.

Following two plebiscite postponements occasioned by these disruptions, on 30 August East Timor voted for independence over autonomy under Indonesia by a nearly four to one margin. Before and after the vote, Indonesia was adamant that while it still was juridically in charge it alone would be responsible for internal security, and would forcibly oppose any UN or other peacekeeping/peacemaking intervention. Murder, pillage and forced removal from East Timor continued after the plebiscite. Australia remonstrated with Indonesia. It, however, concluded that an uninvited intervention, unilateral or otherwise, would have been futile, and tantamount to declaring war -- an option no responsible government could have contemplated. Australia was prepared to deploy troops to impose peaceful conditions, but only with Indonesian acquiescence and under UN auspices.(2)

As world condemnation of Indonesia mounted, Australia quickened diplomatic efforts to get an armed, multilateral force into East Timor. The 10-13 September heads of government APEC meetings in Auckland were a fortuitous opportunity to cobble together a reasonably common front. Preceding and during the meetings Australia worked diligently to persuade the US in particular to make a meaningful contribution to a peacekeeping force. On 12 September Indonesia acknowledged its "inability" to manage security in East Timor, and accepted the immediate admission of a UN-sanctioned international force (INTERFET). In October, the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly acceded to the release of East Timor from the nation's control.

INTERFET came to include over 10,000 personnel from various countries. Australia contributed about 6,000 from all three armed services and the commander, Major-General Peter Cosgrove. Once in place INTERFET troops skirmished sporadically with pro-Indonesian militia, most of whom retired to Indonesian West Timor. TNI forces themselves withdrew. Australian and other troops suffered hardly a scratch. By close of 1999 plans were well in train to deploy INTERFET's successor, a distinctively UN Transitional Authority (UNTAET). Composed of both armed and civilian elements, it was formed to not only keep the peace but to prepare the ground for the emergence of an East Timorese national entity. Australia would contribute about 1,500 ADF personnel and the second in command, Major-General Mike Smith.

Australian party politics were not insulated from the Timor issue. Much of this related to former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating's intervention in the debate. …

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