Subject: JP: Timor Leste must settle maritime boundary

Jakarta Post


May 23, 2007

Timor Leste must settle maritime boundary

I Made Andi Arsana, Wollongong, Australia

Timor Leste's recent successful election has given the country a new president, Jose Ramos-Horta. Voters have a lot riding on the Nobel Peace Prize winner's ability to overcome the myriad challenges facing the young country. One of those challenges, and one that Timor Leste must prioritize now, is the settlement of the country's maritime boundaries.

Timor Leste has two neighbors with whom its maritime boundaries need to be established, Indonesia and Australia. With Indonesia, three locations need to be considered: the Ombai Strait between the enclave of Oecussi and Indonesia's Kepulauan Alor, the Wetar Strait between Timor Leste proper and Indonesia's Pulau Wetar, and the two potential lateral boundaries in the Timor Sea. Meanwhile, opposite maritime boundaries need to be settled with Australia in the Timor Sea.

In 2002, Australia and Timor Leste signed the Timor Sea Treaty concerning the establishment of the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) in the Timor Sea between the two countries. While the treaty could be seen as a sign significant progress, many observers noted the establishment of a joint cooperation zone still meant there was no permanent maritime boundary, a fact that, in the end, was to Timor Leste's detriment.

Prior to the agreement, Timor Leste insisted on settling the permanent maritime boundary in the Timor Sea, arguing for the implementation of an equidistant (median) line between itself and Australia. If Australia agreed to do so, most of the oil and gas fields, which now sit in the JPDA, would have fallen under Timor Leste's sovereignty. Unfortunately, Australia insisted on establishing the JPDA, thereby meaning oil and gas exploitation -- and the resulting revenue -- would be shared equally between the two countries.

The JPDA covers the same area as "Area A" established between Australia and the Soeharto regime in the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty.

The area is shaped like a diamond with the bottom cut off. Its eastern and western sides should, technically, be considered the maritime boundary between Indonesia and Timor Leste. However, as far as I am concerned, Indonesia did not play any role in the definition of the JPDA.

Timor Leste has also not yet started negotiating the delimitation of its maritime boundary with Indonesia. From Indonesia's perspective, the delay has obviously been due to the pending settlement of the land boundaries between the two states. Indonesia and Timor Leste have agreed, in terms of length, to approximately 96 percent of their land boundaries.

The unresolved segments include the terminal points of the land boundaries, which will serve as the starting points for the maritime boundaries between the two states. Negotiation for the maritime boundaries will not start until the land boundaries are fully settled.

In addition, Indonesia is currently revising its baseline system, which is the reference from which maritime jurisdiction is measured and is also essential in constructing the boundary line with neighboring states. The revision mainly covers the area around Pulau Timor and around the Celebes Sea, the location of Ambalat Block.

Considering that Indonesia has been through "invaluable" experiences concerning its maritime boundaries, the negotiations with Timor Leste should have been sped up. Indonesia, however, may not have seen any urgency because the area of interest does not contain deposits of either oil or gas. In addition, Ombai and the Wetar Strait are neither busy nor strategic for commercial navigation. In short, the Indonesian government may have seen that there were no strong economic or security reasons for the urgent delimitation of the maritime boundary.

However, oil, gas and navigation are not the only matters to consider. The fact that many people in the Nusa Tenggara provinces rely on fishing for a living means that clarity in maritime jurisdiction is essential. The establishment of maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea will provide clearance and a conducive environment for better maritime economic activities. Without the clear delimitation of territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), for instance, fishermen will not be able to know the limits of where they can fish, which can in turn easily lead to disputes.

On top of this, the emergence of a new approach in coastal zone management, called marine cadastre, treats the delimitation of maritime boundaries as an important issue. As an archipelagic state with around two thirds of its territory maritime area, Indonesia needs to pay serious attention to its maritime boundaries. The fact that 70 percent of our EEZ has not been officially recognized should remind Indonesia that the time for action is now.

Meanwhile, on the Timor Leste side, Mari Alkatiri, the former prime minister, said maritime boundary delimitation was a matter of "life or death" for the nation. The country's Maritime Zone Act and the Timor Sea Office were established as testament to this sense of urgency. However, recent riots and the election in Timor Leste may have brought significant changes in the direction of government policy, including when it comes to maritime boundaries. Jakarta and Dili, to an extent, may have difference views on the urgency of maritime boundary delimitation between the two states.

Notwithstanding the difference in views between Indonesia and Timor Leste, maritime boundaries are there to be defined. While keeping other issues on the list of priorities, maritime boundary delimitation should be right near the top. While also important for Indonesia, settling maritime boundaries will be an invaluable birthday present to our young neighbor. Happy birthday Timor Leste!

The writer is a lecturer in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatic Engineering at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, and is currently a UN-Nippon research fellow in Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea at the Australian Centre for Ocean resources and Security at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is also a contributor to a newly-released book, Timor Leste: Beyond Independence. The views expressed here are his own personal opinion.

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