Tag Archives: Timor Leste

Australia as the Big Brother: the alleged spying on Timor-Leste

timor leste

The future finances of the young, poor nation of Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, have become embroiled in allegations of skulduggery by Australia nearly a decade ago. Timor-Leste has taken its big, wealthy neighbour to arbitration over a 2006 agreement on the exploitation of oil and gas in the sea between them. Speaking on a visit to Singapore this week, Timor-Leste’s oil minister, Alfredo Pires, claimed to have “irrefutable proof” that, during negotiations in 2004, Australia’s secret services had illegally obtained information. His lawyer claims the Timorese prime minister’s offices were bugged. Whatever the truth, leaders in Timor-Leste feel Australia took advantage of them. In 2004 the tiny nation was still recovering from the devastation that followed its vote for independence from Indonesia in a UN-organised referendum in 1999. The Indonesian army and supporting militias had sought revenge in a rampage of killing and destruction.

Ever since, Timor-Leste’s hopes of prosperity have rested on offshore oil and gas reserves. But most are located in the Timor Gap, under waters also claimed by Australia. Cash-strapped and desperate for revenue to start flowing, leaders saw no option but to agree to treaties with Australia that many in Timor-Leste see as unfair. In all, three linked treaties covering the Timor Gap were signed, but the maritime boundaries were never agreed upon.

The first, the Timor Sea Treaty, signed in 2002, gives Timor-Leste 90% of the revenue from a Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA). This meant that revenues could start flowing.  The JPDA was a compromise between Australia’s insistence the maritime boundary be the deepest point as agreed with Indonesia in 1972, and Timor-Leste’s hope to use the “median line”, halfway across the sea. Only 20% of one of the largest fields, Greater Sunrise, is within the JPDA.

Then another treaty[Treaty between Australia and Timor-Leste on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS)] was signed in 2006, after two years of tortuous negotiations, during which the alleged spying took place. This one gives each country an equal share of revenue from Greater Sunrise on condition that they waive their rights to assert sovereignty, or pursue any legal claim over the border, for 50 years.  It is this treaty that rankles with the Timorese. If the median line were the border, Greater Sunrise and many other fields would fall in Timorese waters. Mr Pires says that the uncertainty about the maritime boundary makes it hard to plan for the long term or to attract investment. Despite its growing oil wealth (its petroleum fund already contains $13 billion) Timor-Leste remains one of Asia’s poorest countries. It is pinning its hopes on the Tasi Mane project, an ambitious plan to build a gas plant to process gas from Greater Sunrise, and a refinery and associated petrochemical industry. That is a gamble as long as the sovereignty issue is unresolved and an impasse persists over the route of a gas pipeline from Greater Sunrise. Timor-Leste wants a pipeline to Tasi Mane to bring jobs and income. Australia wants a pipeline to Darwin. The bugging allegation and arbitration proceedings seem intended to force Australia to the negotiating table. Leaders in Timor-Leste hope to break the logjam and perhaps to win a better deal.

Timor-Leste and Australia: Bugs in the pipeline, Economist, June 8, 2013, at 44

Response of Australia

See also Australia in the Pacific

The Essence of Imperialism: Australia in the Pacific

Nor is it the first time Vanuatu has clashed with the Australian Federal Police (AFP). In 2004 its government closed down the AFP offices in the capital, Port Vila, and expelled officers, after allegations that they were spying and interfering with domestic politics. The AFP’s main concerns in Vanuatu have been over the country marketing itself vigorously as an international tax haven, and over the risk posed by the volatile Vanuatu Mobile Force, the paramilitary wing of the local police force. Protecting Australia’s national interests under the guise of so-called capacity-building can quickly lead to tensions.

The AFP’s activities in Vanuatu have been part of a broader expansion over the past decade of Australian policing across the Pacific. Peacekeeping missions to Timor-Leste since 1999 and to the Solomon Islands, beginning in 2003, boosted police numbers. In the past decade, the AFP has trebled in size and increased its budget fivefold. The AFP commissioner now has an influential role on the Australian cabinet’s national-security committee. In Australia most domestic policing is carried out by state police forces, leaving the federal force largely free, outside aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, to focus on international deployments.

Their efforts have often led to accusations of heavy-handedness. In 2005 a mission to Papua New Guinea was abandoned after that country’s Supreme Court ruled that legal immunities granted to AFP officers were unconstitutional. In 2006 the Solomon Islands’ police chief, Shane Castles, an Australian, was sacked and declared an “undesirable immigrant” after a raid by his police officers on the office of the prime minister. That raid was connected with the AFP’s long-standing pursuit of the Solomon Islands’ then attorney-general, Julian Moti, on charges of sex with an underage girl. Mr Moti was deported to Australia in 2007, arrested and brought before the courts. In December 2011 the High Court threw the case out, finding that Australian officials had colluded in Mr Moti’s illegal deportation.

The Australian Federal Police in the Pacific: Booting out big brother, Economist, May 19, 2012, at 49