Indonesian independence and Australian imperialism

by Sam Pietsch • Published 12 July 2015

We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters which concern the transfer of power and other things will be executed by careful means and in the shortest possible time.[1]

On 17 August 1945, with these simple words, President Sukarno and Vice-President Hatta declared the unilateral independence of the Republic of Indonesia from the Netherlands. It was a bold gambit, exploiting the vacuum of state power in the archipelago between the defeat of the Japanese and the resumption of European colonialism in South East Asia.

Indonesian independence was a serious challenge for Australian imperialism. Australia finds itself inextricably part of a global imperialist system, that is, a system of generalised competition between major states, in which economic and strategic aspects are mutually dependent but irreducible. Australia is a middle ranking power within this system. It is certainly not amongst the great imperialist powers, which aim to dominate on a regional or even global scale. Contrary to the views of left nationalists, however, Australia is in no way oppressed by the international system. As a wealthy nation with a modern economy, and military and diplomatic capacities to match, Australia has a capacity to carve out its own place in the global order far in advance of the countries of the “Third World”. As O’Lincoln has put it, “Our rulers’ intention has always been to advance Australia’s own imperialist interests.”[2]

For Australia, the Indonesian archipelago, stretching from the Malay Peninsula to the Southwest Pacific islands, is the most crucial region where imperialist competition plays out. This importance is not due to direct Australian economic interests in Indonesia, which have been relatively insubstantial.[3] Instead, Australia’s dominant concern in the archipelago is strategic. Indonesia itself is no threat. But any great power threat to Australia must come through this region.

This article argues that the Australian state showed considerable flexibility in meeting the challenge of Indonesian independence, with policy makers seeking to navigate the dual imperatives of acceding to Indonesian nationalist claims where necessary, while also securing Australian strategic interests. This required a constantly evolving policy in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. The quest for “stability” in the archipelago was, however, only finally attained through Australian support for the Suharto dictatorship from 1965.

Australian imperialism at the close of World War Two

Prior to World War Two, Australia supported European colonialism throughout Southeast Asia, as it kept the region bound up in a relatively stable system dominated by Britain, while buttressing Australia’s retention of its own colonial possession in the eastern half of the island of Papua. There was minimal contact between Australia and the then Netherlands East Indies (NEI) in the pre-war period. The economic ties of both territories were largely with their respective imperial systems. Britain and the Netherlands were on friendly terms, abating security fears. This comfortable indifference was shattered by the Japanese invasion of the NEI in 1941.[4] The Netherlands regime collapsed, opening the way to Japanese occupation of the territory, as well as Australian-controlled Papua. From this base, it was incorrectly assumed by the Western Allies, Japan aimed to launch an attack on the Australian mainland.[5]

The post-war policy of the Chifley Labor government (1945-1949) was dominated by the desire to prevent hostile powers once again establishing a foothold from which they might threaten the Australian mainland or its lines of communications. Russia and China came to be seen as the most likely potential adversaries during the Cold War.

To begin with, Australia continued to view formal empires, including its own, as the preferred mode of Western dominance in the region. In particular, H.V. Evatt, Minister for External Affairs, stressed the need for a lengthy period of tutelage for the colonised nations, in order that they might absorb “Western” values before independence.[6] He was adamant that Australian control over the renamed Papua New Guinea (PNG) would continue, although the colony was rebadged as a “trusteeship”.[7]

Moreover, Evatt had plans to extend Australia’s area of control significantly, proposing in 1943 that the United States and Australia split the Pacific region between them, with Australia taking control of all Pacific islands south of the equator, including Timor, Fiji and the whole of New Guinea.[8] In 1944 he envisaged Australia assuming full or partial “responsibility for policing” in Portuguese (East) Timor, the British Solomons, Dutch New Guinea (West Papua), Dutch (West) Timor, the “southern fringe of East Indies [sic] up to and including Java” and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).[9] As late as 1946 Evatt raised the idea that Australia should take control of Dutch Timor in exchange for cancelling the NEI’s war debts to Australia.[10]

But these plans for an expanded empire came to naught. The rise of Asian nationalist movements meant the European powers could not simply reoccupy their former colonial possessions following Japan’s defeat. The new superpower, the United States, preferred informal means of control rather than old style colonialism. One by one, the Philippines (1946), India (1947), Burma (1948), Sri Lanka (1948), Indonesia (1949), and Malaysia (1963) won independence.

Rather than being driven by any commitment to principles of national self-determination, the forces of national liberation forced Australia to engage with its newly independent neighbours, chief among them Indonesia. As empires crumbled, new methods were needed to secure Australia’s interests.

The struggle for Indonesia’s independence

The declaration of independence was the culmination of a nationalist movement that had, from the 1900s on, won political hegemony for the idea of Indonesia merdeka, an Indonesia freed from foreign rule. The movement mobilised hundreds of thousands of people and created a wide variety of mass organisations. It was not limited to middle class elements, but also drew the active involvement of large numbers of peasants and workers. The Republic was therefore not the creation of the Japanese or a handful of isolated intellectuals, as its opponents liked to claim. Deep reserves of popular support sustained the Republic through several years of intense military conflict with the Netherlands.[11]

This popular legitimacy notwithstanding, and despite having supposedly fought to “liberate” Asia from Japanese imperialism, the Allies refused to recognise the Indonesian Republic. The Netherlands attempted to re-impose its sovereignty by force, only withdrawing from Indonesia in 1949, and then only because Republican forces had fought out a military stalemate. Britain, whose forces occupied the NEI in order to accept the Japanese surrender, gave crucial support to the Netherlands. While refusing to directly confront the Republic, the British military administration facilitated the return of the Netherlands’ own armed forces and civilian administration. The United States’ position was more ambiguous, only coming to support the Republic after several years of diplomatic and military conflict.[12]

Australia’s response to the Republic was more responsive to changing political realities in the region. In particular, Canberra provided support for the Republic’s diplomatic efforts, the value of which was acknowledged by its leaders. Australian support for Indonesian independence was, however, neither immediate nor unqualified.[13]

Domestically, the issue polarised political opinion. On the far left, the Republic found an important ally in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the trade unions where it had influence, in particular the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF).[14] The WWF supported the mutinies and strikes of Indonesian sailors located in Australia, which crippled Dutch military and civil shipping. The union then imposed its own industrial bans on the Dutch merchant fleet, lasting on and off until 1949. Over this time, the ban affected over 500 ships, which denied the Dutch important administrative and military supplies, delaying the reestablishment of the exiled NEI administration and allowing the Republic to develop its rival administration and consolidate popular support.

But the political right, led by future conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies, denounced the Republic as a mere product of the Japanese occupation.[15] They supported the full restoration of the Netherlands’ sovereignty and, along with most newspapers, denounced the industrial campaign as a Communist hijack of foreign policy. Chifley refused demands to take action to break the waterfront embargo. Not without some justification, he gave the NEI administration the excuse that he feared triggering widespread industrial action, unaffordable during post-war reconstruction. But he also established links with Republican leaders, to whom he presented the shipping ban as evidence of Australia’s sympathy. He thus used the industrial campaign as a diplomatic cover for his policy of increasing support for Indonesian independence.[16]

These diplomatic manoeuvres reflected Australia’s ambiguous attitude towards Indonesian independence. Formally, Canberra supported the restoration of the NEI, only recognising the Republic after the Dutch granted independence in 1949. Australian troops captured a number of Indonesian islands from Japanese forces before they were restored to the Dutch.[17] Australia also sold surplus military equipment to the Netherlands. At the same time though, the government realised that a simple return to the pre-war status quo in the NEI was impossible. Australia’s interests lay in achieving a peaceful, orderly transition of power. By the end of 1945 Australia had come to support a negotiated settlement, in which Indonesia was given national autonomy, but not immediate or full independence.[18]

The Dutch, however, remained intransigent. As early as December 1945 one Australian official in the NEI warned that the “Dutch remedy is force, and still more force, to teach the ‘natives’ a lesson”, and that “the real problem is not whether the Indonesians can govern themselves but whether they will allow the Dutch to govern them.”[19] With negotiations deadlocked, the Dutch resorted to military actions in July 1947 and December 1948. But rather than eradicating Republican resistance, they entrenched the very instability Australia feared.[20] As a result, the Australian government shifted policy, actively aiding the independence movement from mid-1947 at the latest. Australia, along with India, raised the issue of the first Dutch military action in the United Nations Security Council. From then on, Australia increasingly acted as the Republic’s diplomatic proxy in UN sponsored negotiations.[21]

Australia’s policy toward Indonesia therefore shifted ground considerably between 1945 and 1949, moving from support for the Netherlands’ sovereignty to actively assisting nationalist forces, albeit with some qualifications. It was the changing balance of forces in Indonesia, however, that brought about this change. At all times, the Chifley government was pursuing Australian imperialism’s fundamental interests.

These interests were partly economic. Faced with the decline of the British imperial trade network, Australia was anxious to secure new markets and sources of raw materials. To this end, Australia sought access to the formerly closed economy of the NEI (and other colonial territories in Asia-Pacific).[22] Befriending a newly independent Indonesia held out the prospect of future trade, although ultimately this amounted to little.

Of far greater concern were Australia’s strategic interests, which revolved around the fear that a power vacuum in Indonesia would allow a hostile power to penetrate the region.[23] An early assessment by the Department of External Affairs (DEA), argued that

[O]nly fairly drastic remedies applied now will have any hope of successfully resolving the situation by meeting the legitimate demands of the native peoples whilst at the same time preserving some order and stability by permitting the return of the previous administration… [T]he vital security interests of Australia [lie] in fostering a liberal settlement…[24]

Later, against Britain’s objection that the Netherlands must not be criticised in the UN for fear of involving Russia, Australian officials argued that it was precisely by doing nothing to support the Indonesian nationalists that the Western powers would open the door to Russian interference.[25]

Australia feared not only the involvement of hostile foreign powers, but also the possibility of the internal radicalisation of the nationalist movement. From an early stage, the movement included a radical wing which saw independence not as the final goal, but as a part of deeper social transformations. The Communist Party of Indonesia (the PKI) was formed in 1920 and soon joined the Comintern. In 1926, the PKI launched an abortive uprising against the NEI, which was easily crushed. Repression by both the Dutch and the Japanese followed and the party splintered. Re-established in 1945, the PKI became an increasingly powerful political force, subsuming several other left wing organisations by 1948.[26]

Another left wing current was led by Tan Malaka, the former Comintern representative for Southeast Asia. Tan Malaka had been expelled from the PKI for supposed Trotskyist sympathies following the 1926 uprising, which he had opposed as a putsch. Tan Malaka returned to Indonesia from exile in 1942, and by 1946 had founded a radical nationalist front group named Persuatan Perjuangan (PP, Struggle Front), which quickly attracted mass support and sympathy within the Indonesian armed forces.[27]

Political tensions within the Republic revolved around the question of how to win independence. A policy of diplomasi, seeking to negotiate a partial settlement with the Netherlands, was favoured by successive Republican governments led by the moderate nationalists. More radical elements gathered in the PP favoured perjuangan, a revolutionary struggle for complete and immediate independence. Their attempts, both political and military, to assume power and implement this line were thwarted. Tan Malaka was imprisoned in March 1946 and his political support waned substantially. But having been released from prison in September 1948, he continued agitating for perjuangan, and was eventually executed on the orders of an Indonesian military commander in February 1949.[28]

For its part, the PKI initially gave strong support to diplomasi, but shifted to a perjuangan stance from mid-1948. The shift came after it became clear that the Netherlands had no intention of reaching a genuine settlement, and also brought the PKI into line with the USSR’s hardening Cold War stance towards the Western powers.[29] Mounting tensions between the PKI and the Indonesian government culminated in armed clashes in East Java in September 1948. Lacking decisive popular or military support, the PKI was driven from its urban bases and its main leaders were imprisoned or killed.[30] This did not prevent the PKI re-emerging as a powerful mass organisation in the 1950s.[31]

The rise of a radical or even Communist regime in Indonesia was therefore far from impossible. This prompted Australia to repeatedly attempt intervention in the internal politics of the Republic, throwing its weight behind moderate leaders in order to prevent the rise of more radical elements.[32] One diplomat revealed the limits of Australian “anti-colonialism” by complaining that

The Dutch clearly do not understand… what is likely to happen in the long run – the triumph of extremist forces in Indonesia with attendant dangers to all white races in the area.[33]

Australia’s support for a diplomatic solution to the Dutch-Indonesian conflict therefore stemmed from a desire to contain Indonesian national liberation within acceptable bounds. The need for “stability” in Indonesia, and conversely the fear of “extremism”, were to become constant themes of Australian policy over the coming decades.

West Papua

Australia’s underlying distrust of rapid decolonisation soon soured relations with independent Indonesia. The Sukarno government began to act against conditions the Netherlands had imposed during independence negotiations, most importantly the continued Dutch sovereignty over West Papua.

Sukarno argued that by definition Indonesian independence would be incomplete without the “liberation” of this territory.[34] Negotiations proved fruitless, and in 1960 the Netherlands announced that West Papua would eventually become an independent state. Indonesia responded with a military build-up and a series of incursions into West Papua, backed by the threat of outright invasion. Lacking international support, the Netherlands handed formal control to the UN in August 1962. But the UN-sponsored New York Agreement was farcical, because Indonesia already had a substantial presence in the territory. The province of “Irian Jaya” was formally incorporated into Indonesia in May 1963.

The Chifley government had continued to support the Netherlands’ sovereignty over West Papua.[35] In the 1940s, West Papuans were seen by Australia as ethnically or racially different to other “Indonesians”, and politically less mature. More importantly, West Papua shared a land border with PNG. The Dutch were considered more trustworthy partners in the defence of the island than the new “Asiatic” Indonesian state, which might even pose a threat to Australia’s colony.[36]

These security concerns remained at the heart of Australia’s policy under the Menzies government (1949-1966). His long-standing support for Dutch colonialism as a bulwark against Asian powers was only reinforced by hardening Cold War attitudes in Australia, and by the growth in influence of the PKI in Indonesia.[37] As Catley and Dugis write:

The Australian government was obsessed with the idea that the existence of [sic] “aggressive, united or monolithic force” would cause another World War, and it saw a politically unstable Indonesia, at the mercy of communist interests, as a potential threat to the security of East New Guinea and Australia itself.[38]

Accordingly, from 1950 until 1962, Australia openly opposed Indonesia’s ambitions in West Papua, and attempted to muster support for the Netherlands in the UN. Throughout the 1950s Australia and the Netherlands discussed coordinating their administrations, and Australia sought involvement in development and defence of the western half of the island.[39]

The United States, however, sided with Indonesia. Washington calculated that while the Netherlands and Australia might be disgruntled with a lack of support from their superpower, they would certainly not break their alliances. On the other hand, failure to support Indonesia over West Papua might well destroy a key strategic relationship by driving Sukarno into the hands of the Russians.[40]

Without support from the United States, Australia was forced into an embarrassing backdown, and in 1962 Barwick, the new Minister for External Affairs, publicly declared that Indonesian incorporation of West Papua would not be harmful to Australia’s interests. Apart from a realistic assessment of Australia’s impotence, Barwick had concluded that the real threat to security lay in needlessly angering Indonesia, and possibly encouraging its links to Communist China.[41]


Having failed in West Papua, Australia’s response to Indonesia’s campaign against the creation of Malaysia was much more cautious. In 1961, Britain announced plans to create a new state from its territories of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei (the last three in northern Borneo). Malaysia came into being in September 1963, although Brunei did not in the event join, and Singapore split away again in 1965. Indonesia opposed the creation of Malaysia as a sham de-colonisation, aimed at preserving British interests in the region. Sukarno might also have been considering absorbing the Borneo territories into Indonesia, although Canberra thought this unlikely.[42] In any case, from 1963 Indonesia launched a campaign known as konfrontasi, consisting of guerrilla operations in north Borneo and the Malayan peninsular, designed to put pressure on the fragile Malaysian state.[43] The policy was only abandoned in 1966, after Sukarno’s fall from power.

Konfrontasi presented a serious dilemma for Australia. Australia’s Cold War strategy was based on “forward defence”, which aimed to defeat Communism in Southeast Asia, in joint action with major power allies including Britain. Australia had substantial forces permanently stationed in Malaya, which was seen as a bulwark against the spread of Communism, and had been involved in counter-insurgency operations there from the late 1940s.[44] De-colonisation needed to be completed in the region without harming Australian and British interests. As such, Barwick noted that “Malaysia probably represents the best solution any one has so far produced but it is a far from perfect one.”[45]

But with relations still strained over West Papua, Australia did not want to clash with Indonesia over Malaysia. Friendship with Indonesia and Australia’s wider strategic interests were both important, but “it became increasingly difficult for Barwick to keep these two contradictory objectives in balance.”[46] Australia gave early but qualified support for Malaysia. Casting itself as mediator, Australia called for careful implementation, including recognition of Indonesia’s genuine security concerns.[47] This strategy was rewarded with the signing of the “Manila accords” in June 1963, in which Indonesia accepted the creation of Malaysia, provided the UN supervise a process to ascertain the support of the Borneo peoples.[48]

But negotiations soon broke down over the implementation of the agreement. Following Malaysia’s establishment in September 1963, Indonesia escalated its military action, and Australia was forced to take a more open position in support of its allies. This did not mean, though, an immediate commitment to the outright military defence of Malaysia, but rather a policy of “graduated response”. Initially, Australia provided increased military aid and training to the Malaysian military. Naval and air support for Malaysian operations followed, and in June 1964 Australian engineers were deployed in Sabah. Finally, in early 1965, Australian combat troops were sent to north Borneo.[49] There were a number of direct clashes between Indonesian and Australian forces.

The policy of graduated response aimed at demonstrating Australia’s support for Malaysia, while not cutting off all friendly relations with Indonesia, as well as “retaining some scope for exercising a deterrent role in Indonesia.”[50] This latter rested largely on the vague threat of the United States becoming involved in the dispute through the ANZUS treaty. Following the West Papua episode, Australia was wary of fully committing to Malaysia’s defence without the support of the United States. But Washington was reluctant to become involved, and stated that ANZUS would only apply in the event of open conflict between Australia and Indonesia in Borneo, not the guerrilla operations to which Indonesia was limiting itself.[51]

Given that Australian and Indonesian troops were actually fighting one another, albeit unofficially, it is remarkable that bilateral relations did not deteriorate more than they did. Both countries wanted to quarantine the Malaysian issue from their wider relationship. Sukarno never subjected Australia to the same level of anti-imperialist rhetoric as he did Britain, and while he encouraged nationalist demonstrators to destroy the British and Malaysian embassies in 1963, security was maintained at the Australian embassy.[52] Australia’s earlier policy of mediation may have paid off in this respect, with Sukarno unwilling to break off this avenue for a future diplomatic solution. Nonetheless, if Indonesia had persisted with konfrontasi, the bilateral ramifications would have been serious. Australia was saved from further complications by the fall of Sukarno.

The rise of Suharto’s “New Order”

Konfrontasi only served to heighten perceptions on both sides that Australia and Indonesia were members of opposing blocs in the region.[53] It was not only that the defence of Malaysia was considered vital to contain Communist China. There was also increasing concern that Sukarno was drifting into the Communist orbit.[54] Domestically, Sukarno’s anti-imperialist rhetoric strengthened the PKI. Internationally, Indonesia’s antagonistic stance led to strains in relations with the United States, and made International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervention to stabilise the economy politically impossible.

In 1963 Menzies announced a new defence plan which envisaged Indonesia as a direct threat to Australia. The purchase of long-range F-111 aircraft that year was clearly aimed at Indonesia, and would have been used in retaliatory strikes if Indonesia launched outright war on Malaysia or Singapore.[55] There had already been covert military action against Indonesia. In the early months of 1958 the United States intervened to support the “Permesta” regional rebellion against the Indonesian government, using Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pilots to supply the rebels, and even to fly combat missions against Indonesian forces.[56] Australia provided logistical support for these operations.[57] But Sukarno easily defeated the rebels, and Western support merely gave credence to the PKI’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. Increasingly, therefore, the Western powers looked to the Indonesian military to curb Sukarno’s leftward drift.[58]

It was a lesser known general, Suharto, who came to the rescue. On 30 September 1965, a group of low ranking military personnel kidnapped and murdered six senior generals. These actions were denounced by the army as an attempted PKI coup against the Sukarno government. Suharto launched a “counter-coup”, rapidly seizing control of Jakarta and then routing PKI resistance throughout the country. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 people were killed, either because they were PKI members or sympathisers, or due to local disputes which could now be settled with impunity.[59] The CIA described it as “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century”.[60] Sukarno was gradually eased from power, and died under virtual house arrest in 1970. Suharto would rule Indonesia until 1998.

The precise nature and aims of the first “coup” remain unknown, and possibly always will.[61] But the details were of no concern to Australian policy makers. Suharto’s rise was greeted with unconcealed relief. Although it was not immediately clear that Suharto would succeed in crushing the PKI, it was earnestly hoped that he would.[62] Australia did what it could to help, with Radio Australia instructed to broadcast only information which would be approved of by the army, and to attempt to discredit the PKI.[63] The CIA gave more direct assistance, providing details of top PKI cadre to be eliminated.[64]

Eventually, it became apparent that Indonesian politics had been completely redefined. Suharto was a natural Cold War ally for the West. In July 1966 a gleeful Harold Holt, who had succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister earlier that year, declared that “with 500,000 to 1,000,000 Communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”[65] The support for Suharto was bi-partisan. The same month that he became Labor Party leader in 1967, future Prime Minister Gough Whitlam wrote in the press that

The new Government of Indonesia is well disposed towards this country. It is our obligation and in our interest to see that we render all the political, diplomatic and economic support we can. If the coup of 18 months ago…had succeeded…we would have had a country of 100 million dominated by communists on our border.[66]

Leading academic observers of Indonesia also stressed the benefits of Suharto’s regime.[67] Keen to support Suharto and enhance the bilateral relationship, Australia was providing tens of millions of dollars in bilateral financial aid by the mid-1970s, as well as military aid and training.[68]Australia also supported Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1974-5.[69]

Praise for Suharto continued long after the supposed Communist threat had faded. In 1991 Whitlam declared, shortly after the Santa Cruz massacre in which at least 250 East Timorese civilians were killed, that “President Suharto is a reasonable and an honourable man.”[70] Another former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, reiterated the Cold War justification in 2000, writing that “The coming to power of the New Order government was arguably the event of single greatest strategic benefit to Australia after the Second World War.”[71]

Official enthusiasm for Suharto systematically ignored the human slaughter on which his regime was based.[72] The quest for “stability” in Indonesia had finally succeeded, and no other considerations were of any concern. Where the atrocities are acknowledged, Australia’s involvement can be played down. For example, the semi-official history of the period tamely remarks that there was “A lack of concern at the means by which Suharto gained control in Indonesia…” and that “Holt’s reaction reflected the contemporary privileging of strategic priorities over human rights in Australian foreign policy.”[73]

Over time, an increasing number of writers and activists came to criticise Australia’s support for Suharto. These critiques were generally made from a left liberal stance, and frequently characterised Australia’s policy towards Indonesia in this period as “appeasement”, “acquiescence”, “accommodation”, “placation” and the like.[74] Although highlighting the moral bankruptcy of the policy, its framework mirrored that of the official apologetics, by suggesting Australia was merely indifferent to Suharto’s crimes. They also imply a purely moral failing, which could be corrected by a stronger, more self-confident Australian policy. This attitude could easily slide into support for actions of the Australian state which are deemed morally acceptable, as was frequently the case regarding the Australian military intervention in East Timor in 1999.[75]

In reality, Australia positively approved of the massacre of the Indonesian left, because the killings were recognised as intrinsic to the restoration of political and economic stability. Holt was at least honest in his praise for this reality, as was the Australian embassy in Jakarta, which saw the Indonesian army as “refreshingly determined to do over the P.K.I.”[76] Elsewhere the events were described as a “cleansing operation”, with the number of people killed and imprisoned inestimable, but which “cannot be small”.[77]

Likewise, while maintaining friendly relations with Indonesia was one policy goal in supporting the invasion of East Timor, of equal importance was Australia’s own desire to avoid the creation of a potentially unstable neighbour, or “Southeast Asian Cuba” as it was sometimes termed. When Indonesia’s policy was not yet fixed, Australia encouraged Suharto to invade.[78]


Australian strategic thinking about Indonesia is marked by a deep-set ambiguity. A friendly, stable Indonesia could provide a defensive bulwark against the advance of hostile forces from the north. But a hostile or chaotic Indonesia could pose a threat to Australia’s territorial security or, more likely, wreak havoc with Australia’s vital lines of communication and trade.[79] Worse, if Indonesia allied with, or was conquered by, a major power, it could provide the base for attacks on Australia.

At times of relative calm in the region, such as during the 1980s and early to mid-1990s, Australia’s sense of insecurity can come to seem like paranoia.[80] This is incorrect. Australia’s strategic focus in Indonesia is a realistic assessment, which reflects the logic of world imperialist competition. There is always the possibility that Australia will once again be embroiled in conflict in the Asia-Pacific, as the major powers compete for regional supremacy and the second-rate nations, including Australia itself, jostle to maintain their place in the pecking order.[81]

But if underlying strategic concerns have been the constant and dominant feature of Australia’s approach to Indonesia since independence, state officials have shown a talent for extreme tactical flexibility in pursuing their goals. From supporting Dutch colonialism, to assisting the Indonesian national liberation movement; from aiding internal rebellions against the new Indonesian state, to endorsing Suharto’s centralised dictatorship; from backing moderate democrats and diplomatic negotiations, to abetting military coups and mass slaughter; all of these have at times been part of Australian strategy.

There is an important lesson here for Marxists today. Imperialism rarely declares itself openly, preferring to disguise itself as something nobler. Where previously Australia has operated in the Indonesian archipelago under the banners of “defending democracy” or “anti-communism”, now the labels are “anti-terrorism” or “humanitarian intervention”. But whatever the rhetoric, and no matter the particular tactics employed, the real aim of the Australian state has always been to defend the interests of the Australian ruling class. Genuine human liberation, at home or abroad, has never been a consideration.

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NAA 1965, Djakarta [Jakarta] cables inwards chronological, secret and below, numbers 800 to 1299, 5 July to 27 October 1965, A6364 – JA1965/07.

NAA 1965-1966, Djakarta [Jakarta] savingrams inwards chronological, numbers 2 to 66, 6 January 1965 to 7 January 1966, A6364 – JA1965/01S.

O’Lincoln, Tom 2005, “The Neighbour From Hell: Australian Imperialism”, in Kuhn, Rick (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson Education Australia.

O’Lincoln, Tom 2011, Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth, Interventions Publishers.

Pemberton, Gregory 1987, All the way: Australia’s road to Vietnam, Allen & Unwin.

Pietsch, Sam 2009, Australia’s Military Intervention in East Timor, 1999, ANU Digital Theses,

Pietsch, Sam 2010, “Australian Imperialism and East Timor”, Marxist Interventions, 2.

Renouf, Alan 1979, The frightened country, Macmillan.

Shiraishi, Takashi 1990, An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java, 1912-1926, Cornell University Press.

Sukarno, 1945, Proclamation of Indonesian Independence,

Tiffen, Rodney 2001, Diplomatic Deceits: Government, Media and East Timor, University of New South Wales Press.

Whitlam, Gough 1997, Abiding Interests, University of Queensland Press.

[1] Sukarno 1945.

[2] O’Lincoln 2005, p178. Throughout this article “Australia” should be taken as shorthand for the Australian state, ultimately acting in the interests of the Australian ruling class. For a critique of a left nationalist analysis of Australian foreign policy, see Pietsch 2009, pp14-29.

[3] Australia’s vital trade routes to Northeast Asia do traverse the Indonesian archipelago. But in relations with Indonesia itself, even this appears as a strategic concern. See Pietsch 2009, pp103-107.

[4] Catley and Dugis 1998, p7; George 1980, pp5-8.

[5] O’Lincoln 2011, pp139-142.

[6] Catley and Dugis 1998, p18; George 1980, pp52-53, 101, 157.

[7] MacWilliam 1996, pp25-37.

[8] Bell 1973, pp15-16.

[9] Hudson, 1983, “Document 18, Conference of Australian and New Zealand Ministers, Notes on the Agenda, 17-21 January 1944”.

[10] George, 1980, p74.

[11] On the social bases and early history of the nationalist movement, see Anderson 1972, chapters one and two; Kahin 1970, pp1-100; Shiraishi 1990; Lane 2008, chapter one.

[12] For US and British policy, see George 1980, pp39-45; Lee 2001, pp137-139.

[13] George 1980, pp3-4.

[14] The definitive account is Lockwood 1982.

[15] George 1980, pp2-3; Lee 2001, pp144, 152.

[16] Catley and Dugis 1998, p18; George 1980, pp37-39.

[17] See O’Lincoln 2011, pp32-35.

[18] George 1980, pp40-46.

[19] Hudson and Way 1989, “Document 458, Ball to Dunk, 17 December 1945”.

[20] For examples of these concerns, see Dorling 1994, Document 328, “Department of External Affairs to Embassy in Washington, 11 September 1947”, “Document 329, Officer to Department of External Affairs, 12 September 1947”. See also George 1980, pp135, 160.

[21] George 1980, pp96-155.

[22] George 1980, p156.

[23] For examples of these concerns, see Hudson and Way 1993, “Document 134, Chiefs of Staff Committee Minute 11/1946, 20 March 1946”, “Document 149, Evatt to Dixon, 31 March 1943”; Hudson and Stokes 1983, “Document 153, Draft Memorandum by Forsyth, 7 April 1943”.

[24] Hudson and Way 1993, “Document 308, Burton to Evatt and Hood, 14 October 1945”.

[25] Dorling 1994, “Document 156, Burton to Evatt, 25 July 1947”.

[26] Kahin 1970, pp74-85, 158-160; Anderson 1972, pp216-219.

[27] Kahin 1970, pp80-85, 172-76; Jarvis 1987, pp51-52. Anderson 1972, chapter 12.

[28] Kahin 1970, p175-178, 187-192; Jarvis 1987, pp51-54; Anderson 1972, chapter 14.

[29] The shift was implemented by Musso, a prominent pre-World War Two PKI leader, who returned to Indonesia from Moscow at this time, assumed leadership of the Party, and brought its position into closer alignment with Moscow’s dictates. Jarvis 1987, pp52-53; Kahin 1970, pp272-280.

[30] Kahin 1970, chapter 9.

[31] See Lane 2008, chapter 1.

[32] For examples of this thinking, see Dorling 1994, “Document 22, Department of External Affairs to Evatt, 31 March 1947”, “Document 468, Submission by the Australian Delegation, Committee of Good Offices, 15 December 1947”, Dorling and Lee 1996, “Document 228, Critchley to Department of External Affairs, 25 August 1948”, “Document 229, Burton to Officer, 27 August 1948”. See also George 1980, pp135-144.

[33] Dorling and Lee 1996, “Document 506, Hodgson to Department of External Affairs, 31 December 1948”.

[34] An overview is given in Catley and Dugis 1998, pp20-24.

[35] George 1980, pp144-149.

[36] Dorling 1994, “Document 82, Kelly to Burton, 11 June 1947”; Lee 1998, “Document 455, Truscott to McIntyre, 11 July 1949”, “Document 492, Pyman to McIntyre, 21 September 1949”.

[37] Adil 1977, pp15-18; Catley and Dugis 1998, pp21-23; Renouf 1979, pp406-408.

[38] Catley and Dugis 1998, p21.

[39] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp21-24; Pemberton 1987, pp75, 79; Renouf 1979, pp415-416.

[40] Chauvel 1997, pp56-60; Pemberton 1987, pp72-99.

[41] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp24-27. See also Pemberton 1987, pp101-104.

[42] Lee 1997, p78.

[43] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp50-60, 120-124.

[44] During the so-called “Malayan emergency”.

[45] Dee 2005, “Document 21, Letter from Barwick to Holyoake, 1 February 1963”. See also Lee 1997, pp76-77.

[46] Adil 1977, p55.

[47] Dee 2005, “Document 26, Cabinet decision no. 632, 5 February 1963”, “Document 42, Submission no. 575 from Barwick to Cabinet, 26 February 1963”.

[48] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp62-63.

[49] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp107-117, 131-134.

[50] Dee 2005, “Document 138, Barwick to Harrison, 16 December 1963”. See also Adil 1977, pp54-55; Catley and Dugis 1998, pp82-86.

[51] Lee 1997, pp88-93; Pemberton 1987, pp169-191.

[52] Adil 1977, p29; Catley and Dugis 1998, p131.

[53] Adil 1977, p47; Catley and Dugis 1998, p138.

[54] Adil 1977, pp15-19; Catley and Dugis 1998, pp129-130, 137-138.

[55] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp79, 87.

[56] Pemberton 1987, p76.

[57] McQueen 1991, p69.

[58] Chauvel 1997, pp64-67; Pemberton 1987, p77.

[59] A figure of 300,000-400,000 is given in Kingsbury 1998, p57. An often cited figure of 500,000 is given in McQueen 1991, p75. See also Lane 2008, chapter 2.

[60] Cited in Kingsbury 1998, p63.

[61] For a critical account, see Kingsbury 1998, pp57-63.

[62] See NAA 1965, “Political savingram no. 52 from Australian Embassy Jakarta, 15.11.1965/19.11.1965”, “Political savingram no. 59 from Australian Embassy Jakarta, 25.11.1965/29.11.1965”.

[63] NAA 1960-1973, “D.O. Hay, Radio Australia – handling of Indonesian situation, 18.10.1965”, “Shann, Cablegram 1340, 5.11.1965/8.11.1965”. See also Goldsworthy et al 2001, p354.

[64] McQueen 1991, p75.

[65] Cited in Burchill 2001, p26.

[66] Quoted in Whitlam 1997, p61.

[67] For example, see Mackie 1974a; Mackie 1974b.

[68] Catley and Dugis 1998, pp149-154.

[69] Australian policy on East Timor goes beyond the scope of this article, but see Pietsch 2009; Pietsch 2010.

[70] Whitlam 1997, p71.

[71] Keating 2000, p126.

[72] See Burchill 2001; McQueen 1991, p75.

[73] Goldsworthy et al 2001, pp354-354.

[74] East Timor was a particular lightening rod for criticism. Prominent examples of the liberal approach include Tiffen 2001, p4; Kingsbury 2003, p37; Birmingham 2001 pp63-64; Jolliffe 1978, p258; Burchill 2001, pp25, 29; Dunn 2003, pp112-115, 125-126. An exception to this pattern is Aarons 1992, pp16-24.

[75] Some similar criticism of the “appeasement” position are made in Fernandes 2004, pp21-25. But Fernandes’ own left populist approach, while attempting to link Australian foreign policy to the needs of domestic capital, does not understand imperialism as the fundamental structure of the capitalist world order. Ultimately, this leads him to support aspects of Australian imperialism. For a full discussion of various analytical approaches and their political consequences, see Pietsch 2009, pp105-117; Pietsch 2010, pp8-11.

[76] NAA 1965, “Shann, Cablegram 1252, 19.10.1965”.

[77] NAA 1965-1966, “Political savingram no. 53 from Australian Embassy Jakarta, 22.11.1965/26.11.1965”.

[78] Pietsch 2009, pp88-93.

[79] Popular fears of an actual Indonesian invasion of Australia remain, but have been dismissed by defence planners since the fall of Sukarno at the latest. See Lowry 1996, p7; MacIntyre 1991, pp146-147.

[80] References to “fear” and “paranoia” are common in liberal and post-modern critiques of Australian foreign policy. For a discussion, see Pietsch 2009, pp14-18.

[81] Rivalry between the United States and China is the most likely source of future regional conflict. See Bramble 2011.

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