Chinese checkers: Timor-Leste leans on China, takes wind out of Australia’s sails

Timor-Leste, a nation that sits astride Southeast Asia and South Pacific has cleared the air on its relations with China and denied reports about its discussion with Beijing on military cooperation. However, it has given a broad hint that it has leaned heavily on China by upgrading its diplomatic ties to comprehensive strategic partnership with Beijing.

Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta in an interview with Reuters said his country has not discussed military cooperation with China and that Australia and Indonesia can “sleep at peace” as the island nation would not be a security concern to its neighbours.

Lying just 680 km away from Australia, Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, created a ripple in the strategic and diplomatic corridors of Canberra and Jakarta last week when it decided to elevate bilateral relations between them to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

This transformation in bilateral engagement between the two countries occurred when Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao visited China on September 21-25, where on the sidelines of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, he held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 23, Xinhua, China’s state-backed news agency said.

The 15-point joint statement issued after the meeting between the two leaders maintained that Timor-Leste welcomed “the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization initiative proposed by China.”

It further said, “The two nations will deepen cooperation in areas related to these three initiatives to pursue common development, common security, and cultural prosperity, and contribute through joint efforts actively to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

China’s state-backed media and also some western news outlets took these points as Timor-Leste’s formal agreement for military exchange between the two countries. But Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate, cleared the air by saying that “it was never discussed in terms of military cooperation, never discussed, and the Chinese side also never raised this issue.”

The Timorese President also said that his country would never bring in a foreign element that would be viewed “by the rest of ASEAN as endangering ASEAN policy of neutrality or peace and security.” Timor-Leste aims to become an ASEAN member by 2025. However, British daily The Guardian said, “A joint statement included plans to enhance military cooperation and explore developments of Timor-Leste’s oil and gas resources.”

Whatever be the defence of the Timor-Leste’s President, the South Pacific nation is under deep influence of China and is trying all its bid to push development in the country through cooperation with Beijing.

This is evident in its praise for the China-led Belt and Road Initiative and its decision to sign it at an early date. Timor-Leste and China “will sign the cooperation plan…on jointly promoting the Belt and Road Initiative at an early date, to strengthen and promote high- quality, win-win BRI cooperation,” read the joint statement issued after the meeting between Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou.

Recently, the Timor-Leste President became the second head of the government after Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to heap praise on China and its BRI programme in their speeches at the UN General Assembly. Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta even snubbed those who call China a “menace.”

He said talk of China as “a menace was unjustified and unfair.” “Global China has fuelled trade, economic growth and prosperity in the region,” the Timorese President underlined, while singing paeans of Beijing and its activity in the Indo-Pacific region.

On September 22, the Solomon Islands Prime Minister also lavished praise on China and its developmental agenda in his speech at the UN General Assembly. He said China was Solomon Islands’ lead infrastructure partner, while describing Beijing-led development cooperation as “less restrictive, more responsive and aligned to our national needs.”

The Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister did not stop at this, rather giving a hype to his country’s engagement with China, he said that during a visit to Beijing in July this year, he reached an understanding with President Xi Jinping on achieving development through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Security Initiative.

Both Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands fall under Australia’s neighbourhood area and their slide towards China manifests weakening of Canberra’s influence and rise in the growth of Beijing’s footprint in the region.

Last year, the Solomon Islands, which lies 2,000km away from Australia, signed a security agreement with China. The security agreement, among other things, envisaged strengthening the Solomon Islands’ police law enforcement capacity and Chinese naval ships’ routine visits to ports in the country. As per the Associated Press, China has already provided the Pacific country with police training and donated replica guns and riot- controlled equipment like water cannon vehicles.

Given this, questions are also being raised on the changing behaviour of small countries that easily get swayed over by China’s cheque book diplomacy. Timor-Leste has extensive security cooperation with Australia. Last year in September, Australia and Timor-Leste signed the Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) which calls for an increase in defence and security cooperation, especially in the maritime domain.

The DCA “will enhance our ability to operate together as required, conduct exercises and training, and cooperate on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” the Australian Prime Minister’s Office said in a release issued on September 7, 2022. In accordance with the security arrangement between the two countries, Canberra provides military and police advisers and patrol boats to Timor-Leste.

Not only that, Australia is also the top aid donor of Timor-Leste. As per Australia’s foreign minister Penny Wong, for the financial year 2022-23, Canberra provided AUD

$100 million in development assistance and additional AUD $20 million for skilling and other national development programmes to Timor-Leste. Penny Wong also announced AUD $6.5 million towards capacity building of diplomats and public servants of the South Pacific country.

Yet the South Pacific country has decided to welcome Chinese investment in Greater Sunrise and Woodside Energy projects. Timor-Leste, besides having strategic location in the Pacific, is blessed with an estimated 5.1 trillion cubic feet of gas and 226 million barrels of condensate, a type of light crude oil usually found with gas, Reuters said. China is eying this and if media reports are to be believed, Chinese officials have started discussions with Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, on deals for exploration for these natural resources. Overall, analysts feel such measures will have implications for Australia and like-minded countries’ strategy to counter China’s growing footprint in the region, especially when Beijing is looking to capture Taiwan and the South China Sea.