Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:00 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:00 | SYDNEY

East Timor: Shots across the bow


Fergus Hanson


24 August 2010 15:31

There would seem to be a few pre-emptive warning shots in the speech delivered today by East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone for China's latest aid project, the Ministry of Defence Headquarters.

Firstly, to Australia: '...there is nothing that would prevent us from requesting and accepting (Chinese aid), nor would it be legitimate for anyone to seek to constraint (sic) our options.' 

And secondly, what at first sight looks like a bid to pre-empt domestic concerns about China's intentions might also be aimed at China:

We are firmly committed to incrementing bilateral cooperation in the military area with friendly countries that provide us with uninterested support. Our Chinese brothers and sisters are clearly part of this group.

We are aware that an eventual assistance in order to enrich the technical know-how of our military, to be generously provided by the People’s Republic of China, will not result in heavy burdens to the Timorese State.

'Incremental bilateral cooperation', 'uninterested support' and no 'heavy burdens'. It sounds as if Beijing shouldn't expect too much in return for its generosity.

It's also reminiscent of regional commentary about China's intentions in Pacific countries. Some time ago, when discussing a loan China was about to provide to the Cook Islands, Foreign Minister Wilkie Rasmussen was quoted as saying:

(The loan terms are) extremely attractive and at the moment there are no strings attached, although we still have to consider what they want other than support for the One-China Policy. Marine resources are the most likely but there has been no pressure on the Cook Islands about access and while we believe the issues will become fishing we will handle them as we see them.

China has done quite a bit of building in East Timor recently, including the Presidential Palace, the Foreign Ministry, military residential quarters and a new Chinese Embassy. This latest project is consistent with its penchant for large infrastructure projects aimed at elites, but will no doubt raise some eyebrows because it is military-related. However, as I have argued elsewhere, so far, China has been cautious about any serious military-to-military cooperation in our immediate neighbourhood.