Listen to today’s Liberal Prime Minister, his Foreign Minister and an assortment of their diplomats and you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia has always supported Indonesia’s claim to be the rightful ruler of West Papua. As Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Dennis Richardson, speaking at a recent US-Indonesia business lunch put it: “Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia and always has been.”

Always? When Australia supported the foundation of an independent Indonesia in 1949, there was no enthusiasm about sharing a border with it in the middle of New Guinea. The Chifley Labor government encouraged the departing Dutch colonial masters to hold on to their Papuan territory. After the Dutch chose to remain, the government of Robert Menzies waged what historian Herb Feith described as “an exceedingly active diplomatic campaign in favour of the status quo in the territory”.

Far from supporting Indonesia’s campaign in the United Nations to gain what they considered rightfully theirs, Australia’s UN Ambassador declared in 1957 that a Joint Statement on Administrative Cooperation between Holland and Australia was a “solemn undertaking of a long-term policy nature”.

According to Dr JR Verrier, in a paper prepared for the Federal Parliamentary Library in 2000, the statement formalised engagement in “low key” joint cooperation arrangements including such issues as land law policy, the question of a common language, inclusion of indigenous people in the public service, sea and telecommunications links, study groups, student exchanges and even dedicated places for WNG students in Australian educational institutions. In Australia, the then Justice (later Sir) John Kerr, among others, began writing about the creation of a Melanesian Federation to include Dutch West Papua, Australia’s Papuan and New Guinean Territories and perhaps the Solomon Islands.

Australian opposition to an increasingly belligerent campaign by Indonesian President Sukarno to unite West Papua with “the fatherland” would have continued were it not for a change in policy by a United States then increasingly concerned about the march of communism in south-east Asia.

With US support for South Vietnam in the form of advisers and material already begun, President John F Kennedy preferred a victory for Sukarno to the opening of a second front, and it is hard to disagree with the verdict of Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the chronicler of the Kennedy presidency. Writing back in 1965 on the events that led to Indonesia taking over the former Dutch territory in May 1963, Schlesinger concluded that critics could plausibly attack the settlement as “a shameful legalisation of Indonesian expansion, and indeed it was; but the alternative of a war over West New Guinea had perhaps even less appeal”.

Australia had no option but to acquiesce and has since maintained, in Ambassador Richardson’s words, that “Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia”. But that is hardly “always” as Indonesian generals will have remembered every time they saw one of those Australian F111’s at a subsequent joint training exercise. Planning for the purchase of those aging war machines began in 1962 with the defence of Papua very much in mind.