Treaty signing brings measure of justice for East Timor
At long last Australia has done something like the right thing by East Timor in the dispute over the maritime boundary the countries share. But it has done so only after trying every other alternative for nearly five decades.
Australia’s long-running disagreement over the boundary and the lucrative rights to the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields – first with Portugal, then Indonesia and latterly with independent East Timor – has now concluded with the signing of a treaty.
The list of Australia’s adversaries in the dispute goes some way to explaining its duration and its complexity. When negotiations began in the 1970s to establish the seabed boundary between Australia and Timor, Australia had already signed an agreement with Indonesia settling the seabed boundary either side of East Timor.
Indonesia’s foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, subsequently said that with that agreement Australia had ‘‘taken his country to the cleaners’’. Portugal, the colonial power in East Timor, was wary and put off negotiations.
After Portugal abandoned had its colony and Indonesia had invaded it, the disputed East Timor boundary, with its resources wealth, came up again. Indonesia was less accommodating. The result was the so-called Timor gap – in effect, a diplomatic agreement to disagree on where the boundary lay. An irregularly shaped patch of seabed territory constituted the boundary, and shared the wealth according to a complex formula that still favoured Australia.
When East Timor became independent in 1999, Australia wanted its new government simply to keep to the terms of the treaty it had inherited from Indonesia. The Timorese, quite reasonably, demurred, but Australia did its best to bully it aside.
Although the dispute’s origin as a negotiation between Australia and a colonial power over the rights to mineral resources on the seabed perhaps explains Australia’s initial aggression, subsequent developments including the birth of the new, and poor, independent East Timor, removed any justification for it.
Although it did make concessions, Australia has been trying, in effect, to wrest away as much as it can of East Timor’s only serious source of national income. For a wealthy nation that aspires to be a leader in a relatively poor region, this has not been a good look. Although the pact ends the boundary dispute and resolves the Timor gap anomaly in Australia’s seabed border, it does not settle everything.
One remaining question is the exact division of revenue from resources won from the sea floor in the zone. The agreement stipulates that if a pipeline is built from the Greater Sunrise fields to East Timor for processing, the revenue will be divided 70:30 in East Timor’s favour. If the pipeline comes to Australia, where a plant already exists, the ratio would change to 80:20 for East Timor.
The difference reflects the gains to be expected from a processing plant for the country hosting it. When the issue comes up for decision, Australia should be more sympathetic to East Timor’s interests than it has shown itself to be in the past.
Another reason to welcome the treaty is that it reaffirms the existing international rules for settling disputes about seabed boundary claims. The conciliation under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that produced the treaty is a first. For Australia’s position on China’s disputed territorial claims, this reassertion of the rule of law has been an essential step.
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