East Timor has a new Prime Minster with a very old problem: Australia’s hard-nosed approach to the lack of maritime boundaries in the oil and gas-rich sea between our two countries.
Last week Dr Rui Araujo was sworn-in as East Timor’s new PM following a historic handover by independence hero Xanana Gusmao who not only handed the reigns over to someone else, but handed them to someone from an opposition party.
Dr Araujo has wasted no time in signaling that the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries remains a priority for the young nation.
In his first comments to Australian media, Dr Araujo told Fairfax, “We do not expect that Australia will have to be charitable with Timor Leste, we only expect that Australia will respect our rights.”
As diplomatic as this sounds, it cuts deep into the heart of the dispute. Since independence in 2002, East Timor has had a simple, reasonable and consistent request: permanent maritime boundaries set in accordance with current international law. It is simply asking for what it’s legally entitled to – no more and no less.
Unfortunately, Australia has made it clear that it has no desire to play by the rules when it comes to its relentless pursuit of the gas and oil fields in the Timor Sea worth tens of billions in government revenue.
Just two month before East Timor’s independence, Australia pre-emptively withdrew its recognition of maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. By turning its back on the independent umpire, Australia left East Timor with no legal avenue to challenge Australia’s unilateral depletion of the contested Laminaria-Corallina oil fields.
Further, when negotiations began over the massive $40 billion Greater Sunrise gas field, Australia deployed its secret service – under the guise of an aid program – to bug the Timorese cabinet room.
Spying for national security is one thing, but spying for economic gain over what was at the time the poorest country in Asia is another thing entirely and certainly does not fit the Australian notion of a “fair go”.
It was this that led a former Australian intelligence officer to blow the whistle on Australia’s underhanded tactics – a move which ultimately brought Australia back to the negotiating table last year following an embarrassing and stern warning from the ICJ not to use national security as an alibi for commercial espionage.
It’s with this backdrop that Dr Araujo takes centre stage in East Timor and in doing so presents Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, with a golden opportunity for a fresh start.
Let’s face it, Tony Abbott is in desperate need of some political wins about now. Fortunately for him there’s one for his taking well within reach. Tony Abbott could deliver on what has eluded the past seven Prime Minsters. He could give East Timor a fair go in the Timor Sea.
How should he do it? It doesn’t get much easier than this: He needs to draw a line halfway between the two coastlines. It’s simple, commonsense, fair and it also happens to be exactly what international law proscribes in such circumstances.
A “median line” solution with equitable lateral boundaries would see the Greater Sunrise field fall within East Timor’s exclusive economic zone.
With the field located just 140 kilometres from East Timor, there would be no need to pipe the gas 400 kilometres to Darwin for processing as Woodside Petroleum has previously desired. As well as being able to invest the anticipated $40 billion of government revenue into its sovereign wealth fund for this and future generations, Timor may choose to also benefit from the “downstream” economic benefits of developing the field itself.
Either way, fair and permanent maritime boundaries offer East Timor the best chance to stand on its own two feet.
“What’s the use of providing millions to our neighbour
in humanitarian assistance with one hand if we are taking
billions in oil and gas with the other?”
Many Australians are involved in a great number of worthy humanitarian projects in Timor. Until this dispute is put to an end, their good work will continue to be being undercut by their government’s actions in the Timor Sea. What’s the use of providing millions to our neighbour in humanitarian assistance with one hand if we are taking billions in oil and gas with the other?
If he chose to, Tony Abbott could be the PM remembered for rising above the greed of previous Australian governments and simply allowing East Timor to benefit from its own resources. It’s an easy fix and would be immensely popular, it would also be the right thing to do.
We must not forget that the Timorese are simply asking for what is theirs. East Timor’s new PM is right to remind us that this issue is not about charity – it’s about justice.
Tom Clarke is the Timor Sea Justice Campaign’s Melbourne spokesperson.