Nobel Peace laureate and former president of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, says claims of growing Chinese presence in the country are exaggerated.
“It has been extremely inaccurate and misleading when certain writings by academics or journalists talk about growing Chinese influence in Timor-Leste. It’s a cliché and it’s silly … It’s absolute nonsense to talk about growing Chinese influence,” Ramos-Horta told the South China Morning Post during a visit to Hong Kong.
He said China donated “three modest” pieces of infrastructure: East Timor’s foreign ministry building, the presidential office building and the ministry of defence building.
On the top of that, there were “yearly Chinese grants to Timor-Leste, perhaps the equivalent of US$7 million, and we never get the cash itself. That is to pay for Chinese equipment or whatever the Chinese donate.”
In the private sector, he said, China’s footprint was also small. “It’s very limited as well. Perhaps one hotel … nothing major in agriculture or other industries.”
However, Ramos-Horta – who is in Hong Kong to launch his book Words of Hope in Troubled Times – expects greater cooperation in the future.
“As we cannot continue just issuing diplomatic statements on how good relations are, China also has to take some steps forward in looking at how it can more qualitatively support Timor-Leste’s development,” he said.
Ramos-Horta, who is an external adviser to the president of the UN General Assembly, said the country was also working on developing its links with Japan and South Korea. “We have very good relationships with all three and we hope to expand … We are ready to increase our cooperation with China but in a way that is mutually beneficial.”
The former president said East Timor, according to its strategic development plan, expected to attract foreign investment to develop three main sectors: tourism, agriculture and infrastructure.
“I believe there are possibilities of mutual benefit for these countries to invest in Timor-Leste,” he said.
“Private sector [businesses] are not philanthropists. They go if they are persuaded … We offer better tax incentives than Hong Kong, but of course, we don’t have a financial banking system like that of Hong Kong.”
Ramos-Horta said the countries that had the greatest presence in East Timor were Indonesia, Australia and Portugal – the latter mostly due to historical links. East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975. It was then occupied by Indonesia and formally gained its independence in 2002.
“Australia and Indonesia are equally important for Timor-Leste. Both are friends and both have been very cooperative.
“The relationship with Indonesia and Australia will expand in the future.”
Australia and East Timor put an end to a maritime dispute over the rich oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea in March. East Timor is now trying to develop the gas field called Greater Sunrise, which could lead to the industrialisation of its south coast.
“If this happens, Timor-Leste will have a huge economic expansion, but it will take years. It’s still uncertain at the moment,” he said.
Ramos-Horta said he hoped the cooperation between the two nations could be taken to another level.
“We are trying to reach a strategic framework agreement [with Australia] that would involve a relationship on every level: maritime security, fighting organised crime, people smuggling, drug trafficking, money laundering, expanding the training of Timorese defence and police forces, and equally important, increasing Australia’s financial and economic assistance to Timor-Leste to help us diversify our economy and rely less on gas and oil exports.”
He said he hoped more Timorese seasonal workers and more scholarship students could go to Australia.
Commenting on how his fellow Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar’s de facto leader – has handled the Rohingya crisis, Ramos-Horta said she should be judged more for her deeds than her words. “If we judge Suu Kyi only by her public statements or lack of them … then maybe we are not having the full picture.”
Ramos-Horta said she set up a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan in 2016 to gather information in Rakhine state.
“I can understand the frustration and disappointment of those who hoped that Suu Kyi could produce miracles. But I never thought she could produce miracles to resolve problems that she inherited from the past 50 years of military rule and that include the profound hatred or suspicions of the vast majority of Burmese people towards Muslims and in particular towards Rohingya.”
Some observers are calling for a genocide tribunal to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for the mistreatment of the Rohingya minority. But that is something Ramos-Horta does not believe will ever happen.
Reaching a resolution, he said, would require a “long-term healing of communal hatred”.
Over the past year, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rahkine, crossing the border to Bangladesh where they are now stranded in crowded refugee camps.