ANZUS at 70: Konfrontasi and East Timor—America’s Indonesian balancing act
23 Aug 2021|

A persistent question lurking in the background of Australia’s alliance with the US has always been whether our powerful ally would come to our aid in a time of military crisis.

Contemplation of the strategic consequences and economic costs of having to go it alone is liable to induce quiet anxiety in policymakers, which Allan Gyngell captured with the book title Fear of abandonment.

In the historical record, evidence of that fear most frequently appears in relation to Indonesia.

There were two notable occasions since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty on which Australia turned to the US for assurances of military support in the face of a deteriorating security outlook between Australia and Indonesia. They occurred in advance of both the Australian-led international force deployment to East Timor in 1999 and the deployment of Australian forces to resist Indonesian guerrilla incursions into Malaysia during Konfrontasi in 1965.

The common wisdom is that on each of those occasions the support offered by the US fell far short of Australian needs and expectations, prompting fears that Australian forces would be exposed to greater peril.

That raises the question of how valuable the alliance has been when a specific Australian security interest was at stake, as opposed to a wider security challenge that directly implicated US interests. The answer reveals the complexity of managing what is for Australia a vital strategic triangle.

There’s a recurrent theme in the historical episodes that prompted Australian policymakers to either seek US military support or ask whether they could count on it: the strong desire of the US to preserve its own relationship with and interests in Indonesia.

Although the US was conscious of its alliance commitments and endeavoured to meet Australian needs, it did so in a manner designed not to disturb its own bilateral relationship with Indonesia. As the largest country in Southeast Asia, straddling pivotal waterways, Indonesia has long been courted by the world’s great powers as a strategic prize.

US concern to protect its separate strategic and economic interests there had a bearing on its diplomacy and on the nature of the practical military commitments it was prepared to give to Australia. In both cases, its primary aim—and its most valuable contribution to the immediate security challenge—was to apply the enormous weight of its statecraft to defusing the source of tension between Australia and Indonesia. Diplomatic and domestic political priorities served to limit the nature of the US military role.

But an examination of the record shows that the diplomacy was frequently hard-edged and came with clear red lines beyond which military escalation was an option.

In September 1999, with East Timor in turmoil, President Bill Clinton told Prime Minister John Howard that the US wouldn’t supply any combat troops to the international stabilisation force, INTERFET. Howard admitted to being ‘disappointed’ and ‘stunned’ that, on the one occasion when it was Australia asking for ‘boots on the ground’, the US demurred.

Pressure on Washington eventually produced an indispensable contribution, including logistics, intelligence, and the deployment of two warships to nearby waters, but, behind the scenes the US diplomatic balancing act is revealing. Separate visits to Jakarta in September by Defense Secretary William Cohen and US Pacific forces commander Admiral Dennis Blair offer a flavour of the months of diplomatic exchanges and internal debate.

Blair was the bluntest. He told the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) commander, General Wiranto, that East Timor was in a state of ‘anarchy’, the TNI was to blame, and the situation would do ‘irrevocable damage to Indonesia’s relationship with the rest of the world, including the US’, unless fixed.

Meeting Wiranto three weeks later, Cohen, too, was tough. Importantly, he warned that the TNI would be held accountable for any militia attacks on INTERFET troops. But then Cohen raised media reports claiming that Howard saw Australia as a US ‘deputy sheriff’ in the region. Cohen told Wiranto those reports ‘were wrong’, adding ‘it was in both our interests to have a positive bilateral relationship’. The clear message was that the US would look after its own affairs, and had its own interests, in the region.

The end of the Cold War had given the US more latitude to challenge the conduct of a valued partner, but government debate in Washington in 1999 mirrored that in Australia—how to prevent the East Timor crisis from imperilling relations with the anchor state in Southeast Asia just as it was making an arduous transition to democracy.

The same balancing act was evident decades earlier as Indonesia’s President Sukarno waged a multifaceted ‘confrontation’ to prevent the formation of Malaysia. At the height of the Cold War, and amid growing conflict in Vietnam, there was acute anxiety in Washington to avert a full-blown war over Malaysia. The US desperately wanted to prevent a terminal rupture in relations with Indonesia, which in turn would see its influence displaced by domestic and international communist forces.

Sustained pressure on Indonesia culminated in a visit to Asia by President Lyndon Johnson’s special envoy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In early 1964, Kennedy met Sukarno at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where he conveyed administration concerns over the significant risk of ‘escalation into a serious war’ and the existence of US ‘treaty commitments in the area’. He pressed Sukarno to end guerrilla actions in Malaysia and return to the negotiating table.

Internal debate in Washington and diplomatic exchanges with Australia before the Kennedy trip show the US to have been keenly aware that, if Australian forces were deployed to Malaysian Borneo and clashed with Indonesian forces, Canberra would ‘invoke the ANZUS pact and call upon us for direct intervention against Indonesia’.

US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made a handwritten notation that ‘we will have a serious prob under ANZUS’. On his return to Washington, Kennedy himself publicly declared that the US had ‘obligations under the ANZUS Treaty’ and war could easily escalate and spread.

Those warnings disguised private administration fears over the fate of substantial commercial investments in Indonesia—especially in the oil industry—and a loss of strategic advantage in the zero-sum game of the Cold War.

Washington was offering both carrots and sticks in exchange for a negotiated settlement. The carrot was more aid and investment. The references to ANZUS and the prospect of the loss of US aid and investment were the stick; they served to make the red lines clear and keep the pressure on Sukarno to pull back.

In this respect, ANZUS proved useful even as the US militarily stayed out of Konfrontasi as it escalated during 1964 and 1965, pointing to the burden it carried in Vietnam.

The pattern of US behaviour replicated earlier compromises and loose commitments to Australia during US-sponsored negotiations to cede West New Guinea to Indonesia in 1962.

But it isn’t entirely correct to say, as Hugh White does, that the US in the early 1960s ‘would not assure Australia of military support against a disruptive and increasingly well-armed Indonesia’.

The record suggests that Washington gave extensive thought to its treaty obligations. The threat of US intervention against the backdrop of those obligations provided valuable diplomatic leverage in reducing the risk of a wider conflict.

This post is an excerpt from ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, published by ASPI with support from the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia and edited by Patrick Walters.