02 January 2009

Secret cabinet documents on Australia-Asia relations released

2 January 2009 ABC Radio Australia - Australian government documents from 1978 show how concerned Canberra was at the fall of Australia's standing in Southeast Asia.

Presenter: Girish Sawlani with Graeme Dobell, Radio Australia's associate editor for the Asia Pacific

DOBELL: Australia was starting to realize that this was becoming both an issue for domestic politics for the way Australia was starting to view the flow of boat people, some of whom were starting to reach Australian shores. Australia was also thinking about what it meant for its relations with Southeast Asia in the post Vietnam War era. The immigration minister at the time, Michael McCullough had visited the five ASEAN countries in the middle of 1978 and reported back to cabinet that there were fears in ASEAN that up to half a million people could flee Vietnam over the next three years. There was a real possibility that thousands of boat people would seek to reach Australia directly. Australia would have to start planning to build for instance a refugee holding centre. Australia would also have to start looking at lifting the number of Indo-Chinese refugees it took. Cabinet decided at the end that year to lift the numbers from 9,000 to 10,500. There was also an understanding that Australia would get very little sympathy from the ASEAN governments for the Australian view that the boat people should be held in camps in Southeast Asia and that Australia was looking at a set of issues in Southeast Asia that would really test its diplomacy in the region, but also the way Australians thought of the relationship with Southeast Asia.

SAWLANI: So how did that feed to concerns about Australia's role in Southeast Asia?

DOBELL: We're looking at the years after the Vietnam War where Australia of course had fought alongside the United States in Vietnam and the Australian government is starting to think about the emergence of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which at that stage was five countries. ASEAN had come to the end of its first decade and in the post-Vietnam era the Australian government was starting to realise that ASEAN was becoming quite a powerful regional organisation and that where in the past, Australia's relationship with say Singapore or Malaysia could be focussed on security issues and Australia's role as an alliance partner with the United States and Australia's role with the retreating British forces in Singapore, Malaysia. That security role that Australia previously played was no longer going to be central to the relationship with Southeast Asia and the Australian cabinet received several documents in 1978 telling it that Australia's standing in Southeast Asia was in decline.

SAWLANI: Were ASEAN leaders being overly hostile to Australia?

DOBELL: No, leaders in ASEAN were not hostile, that's not the ASEAN way but Australia was starting to realise that in its relationships, particularly with Indonesia and Malaysia, that Australia had to rethink the way it went about some of these dealings. It was looking at a more cohesive and confident ASEAN and the documents going to cabinet told Australia that some regional leaders were reluctant to visit Australia. Indonesia's president, Suharto, particularly had visited Australia twice in 1972 and 1975, but after East Timor, was in no hurry to come back. And in fact, we now know that in the couple of decades that followed, Suharto never again visited Australia. And the cabinet considered a submission that said that Australia's relations with ASEAN had been adversely affected by what Southeast Asia regarded as bias reporting by the Australian media. ASEAN governments tended to believe that Australian media views reflected Australian public opinion and that submission said ASEAN did not readily accept that the Australian government couldn't correct misleading reports and bias in the Australian media. Foreign affairs said in a submission that Malaysia and Indonesia were particularly sensitive and the submission also makes the point that Indonesia was worried by Radio Australia - by Radio Australia's shortwave broadcast to Indonesia and that foreign affairs submission judge that, in the view of some of Australia's diplomats, Indonesia had some justification of its concern about Australian media reporting on Timor and Irian Jaya.

SAWLANI: Three years after the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, how were relations between Canberra and Jakarta recovering?

DOBELL: They were still bruised and they were still extreme sensitivities about East Timor. But what's striking in 1978 is that the Fraser government was moving very quickly to go past the issue of East Timor. At the beginning of 1978, the cabinet decided that it would give de facto recognition to Indonesia's takeover of East Timor and by the end of that year, the foreign minister, Andrew Peacock was back in cabinet with a submission saying the Australia would have to move from de facto to full legal or de jure recognition of Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor because Australia wanted to do boundary negotiations with Indonesia over the so-called Timor gap - the gap in the border between Australia and Indonesia at East Timor. To do that, Andrew Peacock said Australia was going to have to give full legal recognition to the fact that Indonesia had East Timor and Mr Peacock said that Australian emotion over East Timor meant that de jure recognition was going to be difficult. In fact, the submission he took to cabinet said that in announcing the start of border negotiations with Indonesia, he would not actually make clear that this amounted to full legal, de jure recognition. He would only clarify that point if the Australian media actually pressed him or questioned him on that issue, and in fact, they did. Australian reporters asked him about the legal import of that and the Australian government had to admit that it had given full de jure recognition to Indonesia's takeover of East Timor. Now as we now know, that was not the end of the issue. This became a running sore in Australia's relationship with Indonesia for decades after and the cabinet papers make quite clear that Australia's hopes to influence Indonesia and East Timor, Indonesia and the ASEAN countries might partly hang off the way that the Australian public thought about Indonesia and thought about East Timor.

Image added by ETLJB - Former Liberal Party Australian Foreign Minister, Mr Andrew Peacock: Instrumental in the de jure recognition by the conservative Australian government of the illegal integration of East Timor by force into Indonesia in 1975. Failed to codemn the genocide in East Timor. Failed to support the legitimate aspirations of the people of East Timor to exercise their just and lawful right to self-determination. Failed to condemn the murderous regime of the butcher Soeharto.

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