24 February 2019
A file picture shows container ships sitting offshore near Dili. Thanks to its strategic location, East Timor has been the scene of great power rivalries between China and the West. Photo: Bloomberg
A file picture shows container ships sitting offshore near Dili. Thanks to its strategic location, East Timor has been the scene of great power rivalries between China and the West. Photo: Bloomberg

Great power rivalries over East Timor — Then & now

Despite being a tiny country just six times the size of Hong Kong and a population of only 1.2 million, the southern Pacific island state of East Timor has become the scene of great power rivalries between China and the West in recent years, thanks to its strategically important location.

A former Portuguese colony, East Timor’s drive for independence dates back to 1975, when Portugal began to give up its overseas colonies one by one.

Unfortunately, just nine days into its independence, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia on the orders of President Suharto on December 7, 1975, and the tiny state was quickly overrun by Indonesian troops.

And for the 20 years that followed, East Timor had been subject to the oppressive and brutal rule of Jakarta, during which tens of thousands of Timorese civilians would die of unnatural causes.

However, even though the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution urging Indonesia to withdraw its troops shortly after the invasion, the West, with the exception of Portugal, largely looked the other way.

Instead, leading western powers such as the US and Britain continued to sponsor Indonesia with weapons and money despite its unlawful occupation of East Timor, so as to enable the Suharto regime to annihilate the communist insurgents on its soil.

Meanwhile, Australia took one step further by becoming the only country in the world that officially recognized East Timor as a province of Indonesia, and then went on to negotiate a new maritime border with Jakarta so as to get a big share of East Timor’s rich oceanic resources.

Suffice it to say that the tragedy of East Timor was in fact the very epitome of geopolitical rivalries in the Southeast Asia during the Cold War era.

Nevertheless, after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, East Timor finally regained its statehood in 2002, with Australia playing a pivotal role in facilitating the independence.

During the transitional period of its independence, East Timor received substantial military protection as well as financial aid from Canberra.

With an influx of Australian investors and tourists, East Timor gradually became the sphere of influence of Australia.

In 2006, the Australian government reached a new agreement with East Timor, which, to some extent, guaranteed the latter’s entitlement to the revenues generated from the natural gas fields within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

At that time, the revenues from those natural gas fields accounted for as much as 90 percent of East Timor’s national income.

Yet the diplomatic honeymoon period between Australia and East Timor was brought to a sudden and unexpected end when, in 2012, a former secret agent of the Australian intelligence made a shocking revelation to the media about Canberra’s massive phone hacking program against chief East Timorese officials.

According to media reports, the secret program was intended to steal state secrets from East Timor in order to allow Canberra to negotiate the 2006 maritime boundary deal with Dili in a position of strength.

Shocked and outraged, the East Timorese government, at one point, appealed to the International Permanent Court of Arbitration and sought the abolition of the 2006 treaty.

The phone-hacking scandal has taken an irreversible toll not only on the relations between Canberra and Dili, but also on Australia’s concerted efforts in recent years to present itself as a “righteous nation” in the international community.

And just as East Timor was desperately seeking foreign investments following its rupture with Australia and its unsuccessful bid to join the ASEAN, Beijing quickly seized the opportunity and stepped in, and instantly hit it off with Dili.

As a matter of fact, China had been sympathetic towards East Timor’s independence movement back in the days when the island was still under Portugal and then Indonesian rule, and established close ties with the then Timorese revolutionary leaders, many of whom are now holding key positions in the East Timorese government.

With China rapidly rising to global prominence over the past decade, Beijing has increasingly regarded East Timor as its key pawn in Southeast Asia. Chinese firms have invested heavily in infrastructure projects in the country, with some of the funding diverted from the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank that commenced operations in 2016.

Apart from its rich natural resources, what Beijing is truly eying is the strategic and geopolitical value of East Timor.

It is because if China is able to secure a foothold in East Timor, it would not only give Beijing substantial strategic leverage over Australia and Indonesia, it could also prevent the entire Southeast Asia and Oceania from being “digested” by the US.

A “goodwill” visit paid by a Chinese naval task force to the port of Dili in 2016 spoke volumes about Beijing’s underlining strategic intentions.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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