Rex Patrick: will Timor-Leste become China’s latest aircraft carrier?

by Rex Patrick | Aug 31, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

In the wake of Scott Morrison and Marise Payne’s disastrous foreign affairs stewardship, Penny Wong jets to Timor-Leste today in what may be another rescue mission to save a Pacific neighbour from China’s expansion in the region. Rex Patrick has long warned the young nation might spurn Australia in favour of Chinese investment.

When Penny Wong arrives in Timor-Leste today, I’d like to think she’s had the good sense to refuse to allow the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to accompany her, because the problem she’s going there to solve, China taking a larger foothold in Timor, is a problem of DFAT’s exclusive making.

Un-neighbourly conduct

In October 2018 I visited Timor as part of the first Australian Parliamentary delegation to travel there in 15 years. The visit was part of a thawing of icy relations between the two countries in the wake of Australian officials conspiring to defraud Timor of its oil and gas resources by, in 2004, spying on their sea boundary negotiating team … after having agreed to negotiate in good faith on the future of the Timor Gap. Timor’s loss was Woodside’s gain.

After revenue losses of billions, two sets of international legal proceeding in The Hague in the Netherlands, a compulsory conciliation process and the corrupted 2006 treaty being cancelled, a new sea boundary treaty was signed in New York in March 2018, seven months prior to the delegation’s arrival.

A year later I was back in Timor at their invitation to witness the new treaty being brought into force and to attend the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Timor’s independence referendum.

On the night of August 30, 2019, in the presence of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne, the President of Timor delivered a 40-minute speech where Australia was not mentioned once. It was a significant diplomatic snub; one that followed decades of thuggery by Australia trying to steal resources from one of the most impoverished countries in the world. The record shows:

  • 1969: Australian officials granted five petroleum exploration permits over parts of the seabed that lay closer to Portuguese Timor than Australia, and then refused to talk to Portugal about a sea boundary, even after it formally protested about Australia’s conduct.
  • 1974 to 1999: Australian officials, alone in the world and with its eye on accessing Timor Sea oil and gas, encouraged and supported Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor when independence was otherwise possible. The toll: 204,000 Timorese died opposing the Indonesians.
  • March 2002: Less than two months before Timor’s independence, DFAT, knowing it would have to negotiate a new Timor Gap Treaty with a UN convention starting point of a medium line, withdrew Australia from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. With the newly independent country desperately needing revenues from the resources under the Timor Sea, good faith negotiations began. Australia then spied on the Timorese to gain an advantage in the negotiations.
  • 2013: When Timor-Leste found out about the spying it sought to have the 2006 treaty declared invalid on the basis that the negotiations were infected by fraud committed by Australia. During the arbitration process the Australian government improperly raided and seized documents from the legal offices of Timor-Leste’s lawyer in the proceedings. This resulted in proceedings being initiated in the International Court of Justice with the Court making provisional orders against Australia.
  • 2015 and 2016: After negotiations that Australian officials promised, in exchange for Timor dropping proceeding in The Hague, failed to produce results, Timor launched compulsory conciliation under the Law of the Sea Convention. Australia objected to this six times, losing on all six occasions.

Having failed on every occasion to take what wasn’t ours, and after finally signing a relatively fair treaty, DFAT still hasn’t given up on its endeavours.

Belt and Road and Tasi Mane

Timor wants to conduct a nation building ‘Tasi Mane’ project on its southern shores to process the oil and gas from the Greater Sunrise field under the Timor Sea.

But the Australian government wants the gas processed on Australian territory near Darwin.

In the 2018 agreement a Darwin sweetener was put into the deal. If Greater Sunrise gas was processed in Timor the upstream revenue would be split 70:30 in Timor’s favour. If processed in Darwin the numbers are changed to 80:20 in Timor’s favour.

There can be no doubt Timor wants a nation and jobs building project on its southern shores. When I returned to Australia after my 2019 visit, I raised the possibility that if Australia pushed too hard then China will step in and assist the Timorese.

I also put in an FOI request seeking access to all the briefs prepared by DFAT on the processing options in Timor or Darwin. Of course, access was refused with an appeal now languishing in the Information Commissioner’s office (OAIC) for more than two years. 

Two weeks ago the Timor-Leste’s petroleum minister, Víctor da Conceição Soares, proclaimed the “only acceptable option for the people of Timor-Leste” was a pipelines to the southern coast of Timor while the new President, Jose Ramos-Horta, went public saying that if Australia didn’t help the Timorese will jump on a plane to China.

Australia says the processing must happen in Darwin because there’s technical (and follow-on environmental) risk associated with a pipeline over the undersea trench that sits between Greater Sunrise and Timor’s coast. DFAT has to be transparent about any reports that supports that claim. We want to make sure that, if we don’t help Timor, it’s for our own national interest, not the interests of big oil and gas corporations.

Certainly the cost to the Defence budget will be steep if the Chinese end up with an airbase on an unsinkable aircraft carrier just a stone’s throw from our own northern coastlines.

The stakes are high. Penny Wong has got her job cut out for her. I just hope she doesn’t listen to DFAT who have got our Timor policy so wrong for so long.

Rex Patrick on Timor spying: Albanese government’s first secret trial after only 67 days

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader -

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