Subject: East Timor: Hard rock, soft water 

East Timor: Hard rock, soft water

East Timor's decision to acquire naval vessels from China makes Australia uneasy, Loro Horta writes for ISN Security Watch.

Commentary by Loro Horta in Singapore for ISN Security Watch (04/07/08)

East Timor signed an agreement with the Chinese government for the sale of two long range patrol boats in April this year - a decision that created uproar in the Australian media, with the country's top strategic thinkers and politicians issuing comments on the matter.

Australian apprehension toward Chinese influence in Timor, an area it considers to be on its exclusive watch, has been growing for the past two years. However, despite all the uproar and media attention, Canberra does not have much reason to worry about China's presence and should instead address some of its mistakes that have brought Timor close to China in the first place.

East Timor has 870 kilometers of coastline and two aging patrol vessels donated by the Portuguese to patrol it. As a result, the country's coast has been plundered by poachers in a systemic manner that has cost the government an estimated US$45 million a year in fishery revenues.

In addition to illegal poaching, the coast is used by smugglers under the cover of the dark to move illegal goods between the various nearby Indonesian islands and Timor. The trade in illegal commodities is believed cost the government US$8 million a year in lost tax revenues.

More worrisome, the country is slowly becoming a transit point for illegal narcotics. As such, Timor had few options but to create a naval force to deal with the current situation.

While certain Australian analysts rushed into criticizing the decision, no one seems to have bothered asking why Timor turned to the PRC for its boats in the first place.

The Timorese government has been requesting assistance from Australia and the international community to establish a coast guard for years. From the very beginning, Australia's position was against the establishment of a naval force, proposing instead that Australia take on the responsibility of patrolling Timor's coast itself. This led the Timorese to make a deal with Portugal in which two patrol gun boats were donated to Timor, and thus the country's new naval force was a fait accompli.

Rather than trying to undermine Timor's defense decisions, Australia should find ways to assist and influence these decisions. Criticism will only lead to more assertiveness and independence on the part on the Timorese and will further undermine Australian influence.

Timor turned to China out of desperation and the affordability of the Chinese vessels. Had Canberra been more accommodating toward Timor's desire to establish a naval force, Pacific Forum vessels donated by Australia (rather than their Chinese counterparts) could now be on their way to Timor. An arrangement by which Australian vessels with mixed Timorese and Australian crews would patrol together could have been proposed, but Canberra chose instead its usual policy of ignoring local sensibilities to sovereignty.

A similar mistake was made when Australia refused to train Timorese special border police, cutting funding and applying pressure on the government. In the end the forces were trained by Malaysia, to their great delight, and fully equipped without Australian assistance.

Still, the Chinese presence in Timor pales in comparison to the Australian presence. Australia has so far given US$600 million in aid to East Timor, and the country earns some US$200 million in oil revenues thanks to a deal with Australia. Thousands of Australians, military, police, doctors, engineers and other experts are currently based in Timor and have a far greater influence than the small Chinese community.

While China has built very visible infrastructure projects (including the Foreign and Defense Ministry buildings, the presidential palace and the future defense force headquarters) its presence in terms of investments and trade is rather insignificant and poses little threat to Australia. The visibility of the Chinese projects has somehow obscured this fact, giving them a weight well beyond their real value.

Still, China has been highly successful at building its soft power in Timor, whose residents seem to see it as a good balancing force for perceived Australian arrogance and paternalism. This is not to suggest that China will have free hand. For instance, Chinese oil companies have for the past five years been asking for exclusivity rights to Timor's inshore oil and gas depots, a request denied by the government, which refuses exclusivity to any country.

Chinese influence is further mitigated by the presence of other powers such as Portugal and Japan. After Australia, Portugal is Timor's largest aid donor followed by Japan. Both countries are close allies of the US and can play a positive balancing role vis a vis China.

At a time when Timor has its hands on growing financial means necessary to acquire weapons on its own, Australia should take steps to positively influence these procurements.

In addition to being able to purchase weapons in the international arms market, a number of countries have shown themselves willing to provide East Timor with free gifts. An Australian army officer based in Dili told ISN Security Watch that Malaysia was planning to donate an unspecified number of armored vehicles to Timor.

In the end the country most likely to be affected by the negative consequences of such a process is Australia, and not the countries that are so eager to supply East Timor with the means to destroy itself .Therefore, countries like Australia and Portugal should use their significant influence to redirect the restructuring of the country's security forces.

While Australia's hard power in Timor is unlikely to be seriously undermined, Canberra needs to be more aware of its waning soft power. In a circular fashion, Australia's soft power is further weakened by the increasing strength of its hard power. In contrast, Chinese hard power is minimum, while its soft power is significant and has been acquired and maintained at very little cost. Canberra needs to address this paradox of Australian power if it hopes to maintain its dominant position in East Timor.


Loro Horta is a research associate fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and a graduate of the National Defense University of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLANDU).

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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