As commentators rightly eulogise Gough Whitlam's foreign policy achievements, most of the attention has focused on his grand outreach to communist China and the independence of Papua New Guinea. These two acts were conspicuous hallmarks of Whitlam's game-changing diplomatic moments.

A 1979 Peter Nicholson cartoon from The Australian on then Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock's attitude to Indonesia's treatment of East Timor.

However, in terms of hard-nosed negotiating and high stakes versus high ideals, China and PNG were relatively easy accomplishments. Whitlam was pushing on an open door in both China and PNG, both of whom stood to gain from his gestures. Measured by degree of difficulty and complexity of task, Whitlam's engagement with Suharto's Indonesia is an even greater testament to a visionary statesman who put Australia's national interests above all else, including domestic politics.

The reason Australian governments today instinctively comprehend Indonesia's overriding importance to our national interests can be sheeted home mainly to Gough Whitlam.

But Whitlam was seized by the importance of Asia to Australia even before he entered politics, witnessing the decline of colonial power and influence in our region through the eyes of a World War II airman. Although Whitlam's handling of relations with Indonesia has been criticised by some, mainly over the issue of Portuguese Timor's independence, this stems from writing history retrospectively. The actions of leaders and decision-makers cannot be evaluated through a contemporary lens. Whitlam's dealings with Suharto and his involvement in the events which led to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor may only be fairly assessed in context.

A typical 30-something Australian in 1975 had grown up against a backdrop of World War II, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, an undeclared conflict in Borneo, and the Vietnam War. In 1975, the Cold War was raging, with both Saigon and Phnom Penh falling to communist forces in April of that year. Almost all of Whitlam's senior cabinet ministers had direct personal experience of world war.

War was a clear and present reality of the international system, while the culture of violence was far more acceptable than it is today. To some extent this explains how a 1965 pogrom, where between 500,000 and one million Indonesians were killed, could pass largely unremarked by the outside world.

By contrast, a 30-something Australian in 2014 has never witnessed open warfare in our region. Despite territorial disputes in North Asia and contested waters in Southeast Asia, it is almost unthinkable that miscalculation might convert these flashpoints into armed conflict. We are products of our Weltanschauung ('worldview'). So was our 21st prime minister. Any criticism of his handling of East Timor's self-determination needs to take this into account.

While Indonesian President Suharto had met Prime Minister William McMahon in 1972, relations between Australia and Indonesia had laboured under the shadow of Konfrontasi until Whitlam's visit to Jakarta in 1973. 

Suharto dealt with nine Australian prime ministers throughout his 32-year presidency. Notwithstanding the warmth of his relationship with Paul Keating, Suharto first showed genuine respect and admiration for an Australian prime minister in 1974. In one of the more bizarre vignettes of Australian diplomacy, Suharto took Whitlam to a secret cave in the Dieng Plateau, near his Yogyakarta home. A syncretic Muslim, Suharto often retreated there, alone or with spiritual advisers, to receive the mystic wisdom that helped him guide the Indonesian ship of state. Whitlam, and by extension Australia, had been drawn closer inside Suharto's confidences. 

It was also during this visit that Whitlam expressed to Suharto his preference that Portuguese Timor become integrated into or associated with Indonesia, though in a way that would be acceptable to the Australian people. There is no doubt that Whitlam's clear preference was for the peaceful political integration of East Timor into Indonesia after it was decolonised. There is equally little doubt that Whitlam viewed Australia's paramount interest as maintaining good relations with Indonesia – he said so twice during a meeting with Suharto in Townsville in 1975. Given the unlikelihood that there would ever be the 'measured and deliberate process of decolonisation in Portuguese Timor' described in Australian official policy, Australia's national interests would always trump the aspirations of some East Timorese.

Armchair strategists have accused Whitlam of giving Suharto a sly wink during their meetings, virtually assuring him of Australia's acquiescence in the event of East Timor's annexation by force. The written record does not support this. But if it did, there were understandable contemporary factors at play.

Early indications were that Fretilin would kill more East Timorese than Indonesia ever might. The millions who died during Angola's civil war, which also followed Portugal's precipitous withdrawal, are a salutary reminder of this very real possibility (not to mention the violent seizure of power by Frelimo in Mozambique). There is no doubt that the violent aspects of Fretilin were whitewashed by the mainstream Australian press after 1975. Some theories attribute this overly sympathetic treatment of Fretilin to squaring up the ledger with Indonesia for the Balibo Five killings. 

In addition to the threat of chaos under Fretilin, the active support of communist regimes around Asia was an article of Chinese Communist Party policy in 1975. At the height of the Cold War, communist rule in Dili was as inimical to Australia's interests as it was intolerable to Jakarta.  

If Whitlam, knowingly or unknowingly, reassured Suharto over the invasion of East Timor, he was hardly alone among world leaders. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger had met with Suharto in Jakarta literally hours before Operation Seroja (the occupation of Dili by force) was launched. It is easy to imagine Suharto receiving two nods and two winks from the US President and his Secretary of State. It is hard to imagine the Americans did not inform Australian diplomats of what had transpired.

Neither Whitlam nor Ford, perhaps not even Suharto, had any way of predicting how stubborn Falantil's resistance would be, or how brutally oppressive Indonesia would become as a colonising power.

Whitlam, for one, had other preoccupations from Remembrance Day 1975 until Indonesia's invasion of East Timor on 7 December. A caretaker government was holding the reins in Canberra. The nation's constitutional crisis and an acrimonious election campaign eclipsed concerns over the Indonesian military operation unfolding one hour's flying time from Darwin.

For all the hurly burly of domestic politics in early December 1975, caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had a message passed to Suharto through Australia's Ambassador in Indonesia Richard Woolcott, assuring Suharto that, should Fraser become prime minister, he hoped for the same kind of personal relationship Whitlam enjoyed with the Indonesian President. De jure recognition of Indonesian dominion over East Timor was given by the Fraser Government several years after the 1975 invasion (see Nicholson cartoon above from 1979).

Whitlam had set the bar for Australia-Indonesia relations. Fraser and all subsequent Australian leaders have understood the national self-interest inherent in the current Government's 'Jakarta not Geneva' maxim.

In his time, Suharto remained the most reliable friend Australia had in the region, despite the best efforts of some to derail the relationship. For his part, Whitlam always remained tight-lipped on any mystic wisdom he may have imparted to Suharto in a Javanese cave in 1974. 

Image courtesy of nicholsoncartoons.com.au