06 January 2009

Counterfactual: the Timor Gap, 1978

After much hand-wringing over whether or not it should officially recognise the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the Australian government came to a decision that was both bold and provocative.

The Fraser government announced that Australian mining companies would begin exploration for oil in the Timor Sea, and that Australian naval fleet centred on HMAS Melbourne would protect them. It accepted the reality of Indonesian occupation of land territory without using the legally-specific term 'recognition'. It abrogated the right to regulate mining exploration 'in the absence of an East Timorese government".

President Suharto denounced Australia, and ASEAN leaders declared the move 'insensitive'. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew offered himself as a mediator. An Indonesian official who made a speech in New York denouncing Australia was laughed at. When Australian warships moved into the area and saw off a standoff with a small Indonesian flotilla, Australians rallied behind the Fraser government. The country had retreated from Asia after Vietnam and the closure of the Butterworth Air Force base. Prime Minister Fraser felt sufficiently emboldened to meet with China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Independence movements in West Irian and Aceh progressed further than they otherwise might have.


Who would have thought that Andrew Peacock would look so craven, and John Howard so principled, over that lefty issue of East Timor, eh?

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