In 1974, with the prospect of an Indonesian annexation of Timor on the horizon, Australia faced an important question: would Australia receive more favorable access to the gas and oil fields in the Timor Sea if Timor had an (a) Portuguese government, (b) Indonesian government, or (c) independent government?
At the time, Australia believed the answer was (b): an Indonesian Timor would give Australia the best outcome when it came to negotiating a seabed boundary in the Timor Sea. In a 1974 Policy Planning Paper, the Australian government reasoned that, since Indonesia had already given Australia such a favorable result in a similar seabed boundary negotiation, Indonesia would likely give Australia a similarly favorable deal for the seabed territory offshore from Timor. As a result, Australia was cautious about entering into any final seabed boundary delineations with Portugal. The political situation was likely to change, and there would be advantages in waiting for a more favorable government to gain control of the island territory:
We should press ahead with negotiations with Portugal on the Portuguese Timor seabed boundary, but bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundary between our two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position. For precisely this reason however, we should be careful not to be seen as pushing for self-government or independence for Portuguese Timor or for it to become part of Indonesia, as this would probably be interpreted as evidence of our self-interest in the seabed boundary dispute rather than a genuine concern for the future of Portuguese Timor. We should continue to keep a careful check on the activities of Australian commercial firms in Portuguese Timor.
In other words, Australia should continue to engage in negotiations with Portugal to avoid the appearance of any impropriety, but it should take care that the negotiations did not actually culminate in an agreement.
Although Australia’s economic and foreign interests were best served by an Indonesian Timor, it was for precisely that reason that Australia wanted to avoid any appearance that it had any stake in Timor’s outcome. If seen to support Indonesia’s annexation of Timor, it would likely be viewed as doing so for self-serving commercial reasons. At the same time, neither did Australia wish to be seen as supporting a Portuguese Timor or an independent Timor, because doing so might have the effect of promoting either of those outcomes. Taking such a position (or appearing to take such a position) would also pose a risk of complicating its relationship with Indonesia.