Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:18 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:18 | SYDNEY

China engagement with East Timor


Fergus Hanson


24 November 2009 09:49

Yesterday, the Australian linked East Timorese plans to build a naval refueling base with 'concerns about Beijing's military influence in a region traditionally regarded by Canberra as its own'. I was recently in East Timor and there was certainly plenty of evidence of China's interest in this tiny country, but is there need for concern?

On the dusty Avenida da Portugal that looks out to the ocean and is home to a large number of foreign embassies the new Chinese mission stands out for its size:

China's diplomatic footprint has been accompanied by a number of high-profile aid projects which The Interpreter has discussed before. Chinese infrastructure projects in Dili include the new Foreign Ministry...

...and Presidential Palace... 

High-level visits have also been involved with a Timorese delegation led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in China last month 'looking for support for its bid for a major gas processing plant to be built in East Timor instead of Darwin'.

The level of Chinese interest in such a small parcel of global real estate is curious, but then again China is undertaking major aid projects in much more remote parts of our region. And taking advantage of China's interest makes sense for the Timorese. As Hugh White put it:

What Australians fail to recognise — notwithstanding our role 10 years ago — for East Timor, living next door to a country like Australia is somewhat uncomfortable....Seeking to balance Australia's role, and for that matter Indonesia's role, in their international position is a perfectly understandable thing to do.

And it's worth remembering the patrol boats East Timor got from China were not military aid, the Timorese government bought them. The same goes for the heavy oil electricity plant it purchased from China — it might not have been a very transparent process or a wise investment, but that's another story.