Tensions remain between Timor-Leste and Australia despite new deal

Xanana Gusmao levels allegations against Australia, UN and energy groups
Tensions remain between Timor-Leste and Australia despite new deal

In this file image taken in 2014, then Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho (left) welcomes then Timor-Leste prime minister Xanana Gusmao before a meeting at Sao Bento Palace in Lisbon. (Photo by Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP)

A new maritime deal between Timor-Leste and Australia, giving Timor-Leste a bigger split of an estimated US$53 billion in energy revenues, has been soured by accusations that Australia has colluded with the UN and energy companies to deprive them of the opportunity to develop a gas-processing industry.

The new deal signed between Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Timor-Leste's caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Agio Peirera in New York on March 6 is the end result of Timor-Leste's decision to take Australia to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague over the 2006 maritime treaty between the nations.

Timor-Leste won the right to tear up the 2006 treaty and proceed to arbitration under the auspices of the UN. The new deal was struck last year with the aim of signing in March 2018. The new deal was broadly welcomed in Dili by politicians of all stripes who are heading to the polls in just two months' time.

"We are truly happy with the result and the fact that we are signing for the maritime border between Timor-Leste and Australia," parliamentary leader of  the People's Democratic Party in the recently dissolved parliament Fidelis Magalhaes told ucanews.com.

"I do not think that Australia is kind enough. I think it has been too long and the process has been delayed over the year, but at least now there is a solution on the permanent boundary between the two countries and Timor-Leste gets what it deserves, so I don't think it involves charity or kindness on the part of Australia."

Magalhaes said the deal also means that his country would have better control over its other maritime resources such as fisheries.

Undersea energy reserves are the small nation's greatest single asset and through the new deal they will get a greater share of the estimated US$53 billion in energy revenues.

Still, the country's lawyer in the negotiations, Bernard Collaery, has said that the final negotiated maritime border still remains unfair to Timor-Leste.

But the kicker remains that parallel negotiations between the two countries and the energy syndicate of Australia's Woodside, American energy firm ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell have faltered on whether the gas will be processed in Darwin or on the south coast of Timor-Leste in a new energy hub being developed. If it is done in Darwin Timor-Leste will get 80 percent of the revenues but if in Timor, only 70 percent.

In a searing eight-page letter Timor-Leste's chief negotiator Xanana Gusmao, a former president and prime minister, accused Australia, the UN and energy companies of colluding to have gas processed in Darwin.

"The commission instead opted for the easiest way out, which is a shame as in my perception it reveals a lack of impartiality on your behalf!" Gusmao's letter said. "Civil society could potentially perceive this as a 'form' of collusion between the government of Australia and Darwin LNG Partners and/or the Sunrise JV."

He branded the technical experts supplied by the commission as "shockingly superficial" and unknowledgeable about Timor-Leste.

The issue could become a major election issue in the upcoming May 10 national poll. Gusmao is expected to return to Timor-Leste after a seven-month absence to lead the opposition campaigning against the minority government led by his long-time rival Mari Alkatiri.

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