Henry Jom – Timor Leste's independence fighter and first president Xanana Gusmao is set on pushing Australia for a gas pipeline to be built from the Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea to his country's south coast if his party wins the country's parliamentary election.
Currently, Gusmao's party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), has received 41.6 percent of the popular vote, claiming 31 of the 65 seats in the island nation's national parliament, according to the May 21 poll.
This result will likely see the return of Gusmao as prime minister after being in opposition for three years. Gusmao was prime minister between 2007 and 2015.
The Revolution Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN), the party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Vasconcelos, popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak, was second with about 26 percent of the votes, with the rest split among 15 parties.
In a pre-election interview by The Sydney Morning Herald, Gusmao said his immediate attention would be on the economy if his party wins government.
Gusmao also told the masthead that if Australia supported the plan to build a gas pipeline from the Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea to the country's south coast rather than to Darwin, it would amend Australia's "bad behaviour" over the past two decades.
This follows a diplomatic stoush in August 2022 that saw President Jose Ramos-Horta say that his island country would turn to China if Woodside Energy continued with its preference to direct gas through the northern Australian city of Darwin.
When asked about whether there is potential for Chinese investment if Australia and Woodside did not agree to the gas pipeline, Gusmao said: "I don't raise this issue now. What I say is we will do it. From where [support for the pipeline will come], it will depend on negotiations when it is the right time."
The Greater Sunrise gas fields are located approximately 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of Darwin and 150 kilometres south of Timor-Leste. It is estimated to be worth around $70 billion (US$50 billion) and holds around 226 million barrels of gas.
The Albanese government has said it is officially neutral on the gas processing plant's location but is eager for a deal to be finalised between East Timor's Timor Gap and Woodside.
Victoria's ex-premier Steve Bracks, Gusmao's former advisor, is a key figure in negotiations with the Australian government's special representative for Greater Sunrise.
Source of contention
The development of a gas pipeline in the Greater Sunrise gas fields has been a point of contention between the two countries since 2004.
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 East Timor or 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.
Nevertheless, the president argued that his country would be on a "financial cliff" if the Greater Sunrise project is not operating within the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, Timor Leste's economy has been dependent on earnings from its oil and gas reserves, which are expected to be depleted in a decade.
According to the World Bank, Timor Leste has successfully rebuilt public infrastructure, reduced poverty, and quickly built from scratch a network of functional public institutions since its independence in 2002.
However, the World Bank notes that there is an "urgent need" for private sector-centred development to be not dependent on the oil sector.
Chinese investment in Timor Leste
Investment into the country by Chinese companies has increased in Timor Leste, with Chinese state-owned companies building a new Tibar Bay port outside Dili, Timor-Leste's capital, and a four-lane expressway along the south coast.
Beijing was also behind the building of the presidential palace and the defence and foreign affairs ministry's buildings, and China also won contracts to run the national electricity grid and to digitalise Timor-Leste's radio and television services, reported The Sydney Morning Herald.
However, fellow prime ministerial candidate Mari Alkatiri, from the FRETLIN party and rival of Gusmao, said his country should not use its strategically important location to get its own way.
"We cannot get involved in global strategy, geopolitics. We are a very small country. I told it to the Chinese ambassador here in this room and to the American ambassador. [I said] 'Please, we need peace and stability to face a lot of [the] problems of our people'."