Matthew Knott – East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta has defended China's role as a growing strategic and economic power in the Asia-Pacific, arguing it has "hardly ever" invaded other countries and was unlikely to do so in the future.
In a forthright appearance at the National Press Club, Ramos-Horta also said he would not be lectured by western environmentalists opposed to the development of a giant gas field in the waters off East Timor.
He added Australia could not credibly tell other countries to shun Chinese investment given it leased the Port of Darwin to the Chinese-owned Landbridge Group in 2015.
Ramos-Horta was speaking after the Australian and East Timorese governments signed a new defence agreement making it easier to conduct joint military exercises and allowing greater co-operation on humanitarian assistance missions.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said the agreement represented a "significant step forward in our partnership" and a "new chapter in Australia's close relationship with Timor-Leste".
Ramos-Horta said China's rise had been predicated on peace and stability and it would be against its interests to take aggressive military action – including by invading the autonomous territory of Taiwan.
"China has too many neighbours, too many choke points," he said. "And to feed itself it depends on the stability in the seas, freedom of navigation. It depends on the stability in the world."
He continued: "Would they want ever to undermine that?... No, I do not think so."
He said Chinese leader Xi Jinping would also have learnt from Russia's poor military performance after invading Ukraine.
"I don't think that China intends to invade anyone," he said. "And in fact, you know, in fairness to them, God, they hardly ever invaded anyone."
However, Ramos-Horta made clear he does not intend to sign a security pact with China as Solomon Islands leader Manasseh Sogavare did earlier this year.
"Any leader that is serious about being a leader, you have to be sensitive to your neighbours," Ramos-Horta said. "Don't bring in extraterritorial, regional interests, powers that might not be welcomed by our neighbours."
Ramos-Horta's main mission in Australia was to pressure the Albanese government to encourage Australian resources company Woodside to pipe gas from the Greater Sunrise field for processing in East Timor rather than the company's preferred option of Darwin.
He said several other countries – such as Indonesia, South Korea or China – could partner with East Timor on the project if Woodside and the East Timorese government could not reach an agreement.
"We're not talking about maritime security. It's just a pipeline!" he said. "And China will be just an investor. The port of Darwin [was rented for] 99 to 100 years to China, and no one lost sleep over it."
He said the project could help unlock extraordinary economic opportunities for the developing nation. "You would see Timor-Leste like either another Dubai or another Singapore," he said.
Asked about the environmental impact of the gas project, Ramos-Horta said if western countries are so concerned then they should provide East Timor with $100 billion to cover the cost of not pursuing the project.
"Other than that, please don't lecture me!" he said, adding "the Europeans, you were the ones who polluted the whole world with coal, with oil and everything that you can imagine".
He said foreign investors should not be concerned about putting their money into East Timor.
"We are not Venezuela with nationalised companies and whatever," he said. "And we are so inefficient that we probably wouldn't know how to nationalise a company. So no need to fear."