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China's interests in East Timor

When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, part of its justification was that the then ruling Fretilin intended to allow the country to become a regional base for China. Fretilin had recently assumed power, having defeated the conservative UDT’s attempted coup in August of that year. But Fretilin’s victory was viewed in Indonesia as establishing a communist base in the middle of its archipelago at a time when the Cold War was running hot and communism in the region seemed in the ascendency. At that time, Indonesia was vehemently anti-communist, having destroyed its own communist party less than a decade before and broken off diplomatic relations with China as part of the purge. The idea of China having a base, or at least a friendly country, in its midst was intolerable to Indonesia’s generals. Whether or not Fretilin intended to establish close relations with China is a moot point. Within days of declaring independence, Indonesian invaded and East Timor was quickly incorporated into the Indonesian state. With the ending of the Cold War, however, Indonesia normalised its relations with China and, following the resignation of Indonesia’s President Suharto, East Timor was able to slip from Indonesia’s embrace. Perhaps reconfirming the old Indonesian Cold Warriors’ fears, China quickly became one of East Timor’s new suitors. With Indonesia and Australia both having closest geographic proximity to East Timor, it has been keen not to allow either of them to have too much influence over its affairs. It has done this by balancing its close international relationships with other countries, including Portugal, Brazil, the US and by developing its relationship with China. China has also been enthusiastic about this relationship with East Timor and its subsequent diplomatic and, more importantly, strategic, positioning relative to the other states. It has encouraged East Timor to accept its generosity on one hand while attempting to gain a more self-interested foothold on the other. As a part of this ‘soft power’ push, China provides uniforms for the country’s small military, brings in medical teams and police, trains public servants and farmers and invites students and official delegations to Beijing. China’s ambassador to East Timor, Su Jian, said: ‘China and Timor-Leste have been developing and consolidating their relations on the basis of sincerity, friendship, equality, mutual support and common development, which steers the development of bilateral relations in a healthy and stable momentum.’ He added that China ‘would like to make joint efforts with Timor-Leste to further strengthen friendly cooperation in all fields, and embrace an even brighter future for the relations between China and Timor-Leste’. As a growing economic power with huge energy and food needs and a desire to project itself beyond its immediate strategic environment, as Indonesia had earlier noted, East Timor fits well with China’s expanding interests. The most noticable impact of China’s interest in East Timor has been in the buildings it has constructed as a key part of its aid program. Apart from one Indonesian-built five story hotel, Dili had otherwise been characterised by the modest size of its buildings. Since 2002, China has changed that. Chinese aid might be modest in dollar terms compared with some, but it is highly visible. As a new state with a high level of international engagement, China’s offer of building East Timor’s new foreign affairs building was gratefully received. Built to a standard Chinese model for a cost of around five million dollars, located on Dili’s foreshore in the middle of what has been dubbed ‘embassy row’, the imposing building stood out as the largest structure in the country, giving many East Timorese a sense of pride in the modernisation of their fledgling state. It is a common practice in building to blend another material into the construction to reinforce it so, foreigners joked, after the foreign affairs building was opened, that it was reinforced with listening bugs. Other buildings followed in quick succession; new army barracks east of Dili; the Defence Forces headquarters building; the Presidential Palace which features as its main hall the ‘Beijing Room’ and, of course, China’s own imposing embassy on ‘embassy row’. To ensure the timely completion of its building projects, to keep costs down and to provide employment to its own people, China has brought in almost the entire workforce for its construction projects. As one East Timorese noted when admiring these imposing edifices: ‘Look what China has done for us. What has Australia ever done for East Timor?’ Either ignoring or not knowing about Australia’s $127 million a year (2012-13) in bilateral aid, his views echoed those of many other East Timorese, reflecting precisely China’s desired effect. ‘Our relations with the People’s Republic of China are excellent,’ said recently elected President Taur Matan Ruak when visiting Macao. ‘We’ve established a good partnership, with the benefits enjoyed by a good relationship between our people.’ ‘Cooperation between our governments has been intense and fruitful,’ he said. ‘Chinese investment in our country has fantastic potential to grow and to extend into other areas’. When East Timor began to consider rolling out electrification across the country, China ‘helped’ by offering to sell two large diesel generators, which a grateful and somewhat beholden East Timorese government agreed to buy. As it turned out, the generators were from the Yangtze dam project, with its completion becoming surplus to requirements. The generators have been criticised as being expensive to buy, use and maintain, unreliable and heavy polluters. They have, however, eventually been able to power East Timor’s expanding power grid. The plan is one day to convert to liquid natural gas, which is in untapped abundance off East Timor’s south coast. In a counter to what East Timor perceived to be Australia’s bid to dominate its defence force, when it went on the market for patrol boats to protect its regional waters, in particular its lucrative fisheries, it rejected an offer of Australian boats and instead accepted an offer of boats by China. The argument put, at the time, was that Australian patrol boats came with Australian communications systems, which would allow Australia to spy on East Timorese sailors. No-one seemed to think that a Chinese communications system on board the two 40 year old Shanghai Class patrol boats might also provide that opportunity. Interestingly, the Chinese patrol boats were subsequently found to be unseaworthy in East Timor’s rougher open waters. China’s intentions in East Timor have always had a self-interested hue to them. This was clearly reflected in its request in 2008 to build a radar array on East Timor’s north coast, claimed to be to detect illegal fishing. China offered to build the facility free of charge. ‘The only catch was,’ said Deputy Prime Minister Jose-Luis Guterres, ‘that the facilities were manned by Chinese technicians.’ Guterres consulted with Australia and the United States embassies on the Chinese proposal. Their response, given the array would potentially extend China’s signals intelligence gathering perimeter deep into Southeast Asia, was predictably negative. This was especially so as the deep water Ombai-Wetar Straits off East Timor’s north coast allows US nuclear-powered submarines to travel otherwise undetected between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, the US in particular has been mounting a series of naval visits to East Timor, of hospital ships doing pro bono medical work and of ‘floating city’ aircraft carriers, the sailors from which spend as much in Dili in a few days as the rest of the city in a month. These visi
ts have been confirmed as being in direct response to the growing Chinese presence in East Timor. China has also put in a bid for East Timor’s oil and gas deposits, the contracts for which had already been let. East Timor’s oil and gas fields are of medium size, but they are commercially valuable. The East Timorese government said ‘no’ to re-letting the fields, but went part way towards acceding to China’s request by granting it concessions to explore for on-shore oil. Unsurprisingly, the US and Australia have paid considerable attention to China’s push into East Timor, just one flying hour from Darwin. The rotation of US Marines through Darwin, announced earlier this year, was a direct outcome of this attention. But, as a small country trying not to be dominated by any one of its major bilateral partners, East Timor is set to continue its close relationship with China. By doing so, it will have a useful counterweight to Australia, and to the US, asserting their own regional strategic and economic interests. East Timor may be able to balance these competing strategic interests, to its own benefit and helping to ensure that no one state comes to dominate it strategically, economically or diplomatically. But similarly, should China extend its presence into more clearly strategic areas, East Timor may come to find that, in the real politik of international relations, states do not have abiding friends; they only have abiding interests.

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