Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

East Timor’s tilt towards China exposes the West’s shameful history

  • Given the brutal politics of the Cold War and Australia’s economic exploitation of its resources, it makes sense that the island nation wants closer relations with Beijing to serve as a counterweight

East Timor’s new President Jose Ramos-Horta has said time and again his country will not be dragged into the rivalry between China and the West. Still, the tiny nation, independent only since 2002, has tilted towards Beijing as it joins the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

Its people suffered immensely during the Cold War, under the brutal decades-long rule of Indonesia under Suharto, with the support of Washington and Canberra, and sometimes by their turning a blind eye. Even in the run-up to independence, Australian special forces soldiers in supposedly “humanitarian” operations, were accused of committing atrocities against civilians in 1999. The Australian military culture of impunity has been blamed by critics for paving the way to further war crimes committed in Afghanistan as part of the US-led occupation forces following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In February this year, the release, with more to come, of classified Australian cabinet documents from 2000, which detailed the plans of Australian oil and gas interests to carve up the crucial underwater resources off Timor-Leste, the official name of the island nation, have exposed the economic motive behind Australia’s deployment of “humanitarian” troops after the fall of Suharto in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.

Given the West’s brutally cynical history in East Timor, China actually has much cleaner hands. And if Washington and Canberra now complain about Beijing’s “debt traps” and neo-imperialism with the Pacific island nation, you should just roll your eyes.

East Timor isn’t ‘taking sides’ but it wants China’s help, says president

How the reign of terror started

In 1974, Portugal, the coloniser, announced that independence would be granted to its colonies. The following year, to pre-empt independence, Indonesia invaded and took over East Timor. An estimated 100,000 locals were killed, equivalent to one-sixth of the entire population. The invasion was launched less than a day after US president Gerald Ford and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger left Jakarta on an official visit. Not only were the Americans alerted, but also they most likely gave the invasion the green light. Suharto was by then a trusted partner of Washington, having proven his anti-communist credentials with his extermination and pacification campaigns across Indonesia between 1965 and 1969.

While anti-communism was key to the Washington-Jakarta relationship, the availability of oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea proved to be important to the Australian energy industry. Those interests continued after the Cold War. In 1999, with Suharto gone, Jakarta authorised a referendum in East Timor. The results showed a large majority favoured independence.

With the island moving towards independence, the problem for Canberra was the status of heavy Australian resource investments in the region; and that was what the highly sensitive cabinet papers disclosed.

Australia quickly offered to send troops, with the ostensible aim of “restoring peace and security in the territory” and “facilitating humanitarian assistance”. The two-decade-old cabinet papers, released finally earlier this year, exposed a far less noble motive.

Australian troops were subsequently found, in 1999, to have executed a few suspected insurgents, mutilated their corpses, as well as tortured some detainees, including children. Similar war crimes, only much worse and on a larger scale, would shortly follow in Afghanistan, whose full extent was only recently revealed following a multi-year cover-up by the military.

The troop deployment had a lot to do with Australia’s concerns that its previous agreement with Indonesia to split energy revenue would become void once East Timor became independent. Two points are worth observing. One is the extreme cynicism of the profit split, which rode roughshod over the interests of the Timorese population. The other is that under international law, the upcoming Timor leadership was primarily interested in demarcating boundaries, rather than profit-sharing over resources.

But Canberra was more worried about its own industry’s interests and their future profitability; it didn’t care much about East Timor’s legitimate concerns, which cut to the very foundations of its future borders and therefore territorial sovereignty. Granted, the maritime border dispute also had a lot to do with who owned what with the oil and gas buried under what is called the Timor Gap.

In 2002, Australia excluded itself from the compulsory jurisdiction of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on maritime boundary disputes, meaning East Timor could not take Australia to an international court or tribunal over such disputes. And in 2004, Australian spies would bug the nation’s government offices to determine how far it would concede over the dispute.

So much for the rule of (international) law! There is a term for such cynical measures – neo-imperialism?

The disputes over contested oil and gas fields, and marine boundaries would drag on for years, until a border treaty was finally signed in 2018. The treaty bars East Timor from making any claims about past revenue before its signing.

Ordinarily, state papers such as those from 2020 would be available for release after 20 years. But the National Archives of Australia initially refused to release the relevant documents, for fear of angering East Timor. It subsequently relented under public pressure.

China is the bad guy?

Granted, Joko Widodo is the opposite of Suharto, and Anthony Albanese is not John Howard. Still, given its history of suffering, East Timor’s tilt towards China makes sense. Even so, it will only sign agreements with Beijing covering air services, healthcare, economic and technical cooperation while rejecting a security pact. The latter, after the hysterical reactions of Washington and Canberra over the Solomon Islands, is a wise one.

Like other smaller and long-suffering countries, East Timor deserves better deals from the West, especially Australia. With China as a rival to the West, they ought to be able to extract greater concessions and preferential aid. There is likely enough oil and gas in the Timor Gap to make the underdeveloped island nation much better off.