Henry Jom – In a show of friendship, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has reaffirmed the country's enduring relationship with Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, during a visit by the island nation's prime minister and his delegation on Feb. 8.
Both prime ministers discussed economic, security and regional cooperation, including recent developments related to the controversial gas pipeline that saw a diplomatic stoush occur between both nations.
In August 2022, Timor-Leste's president Jose Ramos Horta said his country would turn to China if Australia's Woodside Energy continued with its preference to direct gas through Darwin, up in Australia's central north.
"I am incredibly optimistic about our future," Prime Minister Albanese said in parliament on Feb. 8.
"Today, with this visit, the Prime Minister and I reaffirm the bond between our nations and our commitment to deepening it further.
"Timor-Leste and Australia are more than just near neighbours – we share a strong and vibrant friendship.
"This relationship was forged, of course, during World War Two, when the people of Timor Leste saved many Australian lives and a great cost to themselves," Albanese said.
During World War Two, Australia's campaign against the Japanese in East Timor began just five days after Pearl Harbour under "Sparrow Force" and saw many Timorese executed by the Japanese for assisting Australia. According to the Australian War Memorial, the early success of these operations was made possible by the support of the Timorese people – who provided food and shelter, ponies to carry heavy equipment, and served as porters and guides while helping set up ambushes.
Albanese added that the friendship between Australia and Timor-Leste had grown "even stronger" since the 2002 independence referendum that saw the island nation achieve its sovereignty after years of war.
"It took enormous sacrifices for Timor-Leste to achieve its sovereignty. And I want to acknowledge that today, as well as the efforts by leaders since then, to make democracy work."
Controversial gas pipeline deal
The diplomatic stoush over the disputed gas pipeline that occurred in August 2022 prompted a visit to Dili, Timor-Leste's capital, in September by Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who called on her counterparts to engage in quiet diplomacy.
Ramos-Horta previously told The Guardian that his country would consider Chinese investment if "other development partners," such as Australia, refused to invest in the development of a pipeline to Timor-Leste.
Beijing's growing influence in the pacific has been concerning for Australia, given a recent security deal made between the Solomon Islands and the communist regime.
Ramos-Horta has since backpedalled on this statement, saying that he will likely first seek funding from Indonesia and look to South Korea and Japan, but has urged Australian PM Anthony Albanese to publicly support the development of a gas pipeline in the Timor Sea.
"Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has not said a word whether he agrees or not with the pipeline coming to Timor-Leste," Ramos-Horta told Bloomberg in Singapore on Dec. 9.
On Feb. 8, Albanese gave some public comments on the gas pipeline, saying that he "discussed" the Greater Sunrise project with Woodside when he was in Perth last week, adding that the project was "important for the future development of Timor Leste."
Woodside has been reported to have committed to carrying out a new study into the viability of taking the gas to Timor-Leste for processing, as opposed to Darwin, reported the Australian Financial Review.
Meanwhile, the development of a gas pipeline in the Greater Sunrise gas fields has been a point of contention between the two countries since 2004.
The fields are located approximately 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of Darwin and 150 kilometres south of Timor-Leste and are estimated to be worth around $70 billion (US$50 billion), holding approximately 226 million barrels of gas.
While Timor-Leste controls 57 percent of the field and is entitled to at least 70 percent of the royalties – with Australian energy company Woodside controlling 33 percent and Japan's Osaka Gas 10 percent – Ramos-Horta said his country would run out of money in a decade if the project did not proceed.
"It could be catastrophic," Ramos-Horta previously told the ABC. "We'd need to have Greater Sunrise operational commercially, maximum within the next seven, eight years. So we have to make a decision by the end of this year."
The president has previously argued that his country would be on a "financial cliff" if the Greater Sunrise project is not operating within the next 10 years.
Deals with Beijing and Australia
On June 3, 2022, Timor-Leste signed a series of agreements with Beijing in the areas of the economy, capacity building, infrastructure, agriculture, health, and the media. However, Ramos-Horta ruled out a security pact with China's communist regime.
Later, during a visit to Australia by Horta in September 2022, Ramos-Horta criticised Solomon Island's Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare over Sogavare's security pact with Beijing while urging "serious" pacific leaders to be "sensitive" to their neighbours.
"Any rational Timorese leader would never do anything without taking into consideration the sensitivities of your neighbours. So that would be my message to my brothers and sisters in the pacific islands," Ramos-Horta, on Sept. 7, 2022.
Also, on Sept. 7, 2022, Timor-Leste and Australia signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) on defence and security cooperation, especially maritime. The agreement aims at increasing the cooperation of the countries' armed forces on exercises, training, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
On Feb. 7, Timor-Leste's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Adaljiza Magno and the Northern Territory's Chief Minister signed a four-year "Strategic partnership agreement 2023 to 2027," which is set to boost business and trade opportunities – including support education, business and workforce, trade and investment, tourism, emergency preparedness, agriculture, health, sports, arts and culture – between Timor-Leste and the Northern Territory.
On Nov. 11, 2022, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)'s member states provided a statement announcing "in-principle" support for Timor-Leste to be admitted as its 11th member.