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Australia steps up aid for East Timor amid China's growing influence in the Pacific

South China Morning Post - January 30, 2024

Su-Lin Tan, Singapore – The Australian government has pledged A$35 million (US$23 million) towards supporting East Timor's policing services and another A$4 million (US$2.6 million) in aid to help Timorese workers integrate in Australia, as Canberra continued to make good on its intentions to improve regional relations amid China's increased influence.

Underlying these gestures however are pre-existing tensions between the two countries, especially in differences over the development of the controversial but valuable Greater Sunrise gas fields located in the Timor Gap, the strip of water between the two countries.

Canberra said the funding announced on Monday would "continue the successful policing partnership" between the Australian Federal Police and the National Police of East Timor and would be deployed through the Timor-Leste Police Development Programme.

"The extension of our policing partnership underscores Australia's ongoing support for Timor-Leste's sovereignty and security," said the statement issued by Pat Conroy, Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific.

The new funding will also support Timorese workers starting jobs in Australia under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, including helping them build financial literacy skills.

This increase in support comes after Australia and East Timor signed a major defence deal in 2022 to boost bilateral military cooperation, in what Canberra called "a significant step forward" and a "new chapter" in their relationship.

The countries have had a chequered history. Australia had supported Indonesia's plan to invade East Timor and later spied on the country to gain an upper hand in negotiations on the Greater Sunrise gas fields so that Australia could obtain a bigger share.

In 2018, Australia and East Timor settled their differences over maritime borders that also created a special regime to offer East Timor a majority share in gas revenues, although there was no agreement about where the gas would be processed.

But East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta warned in 2022 that his nation would seek Chinese support if Australia and Australia's Woodside Energy – which had a share in the US$50 billion Greater Sunrise project – failed to pump the gas to East Timor rather than Darwin in Australia.

Around the same time, the Solomon Islands agreed to a pact with China that would allow Chinese police or military personnel to help with disaster relief and Chinese naval ships to dock, sparking concerns in the region.

This was followed quickly by East Timor and Australia inking their major defence deal and Woodside agreeing to channel the Greater Sunrise gas to East Timor.

The Solomon Islands incident forced the hands of Australia and other western allies, who have been accused of neglecting the region. Alongside East Timor, Canberra last year stepped up bilateral deals with other regional countries, including those in the Pacific such as Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea.

Greater Sunrise is important to East Timor as it bears much-needed economic benefits. During a visit to East Timor last year, Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong was again pressed on Canberra's commitment towards Greater Sunrise.

Late last year, Woodside started work on the project's concept study.

While Australia's weak diplomatic relations with its East Timor and its Pacific neighbours were brought to the fore by Chinese presence, it also directed benefits to these countries, said Clinton Fernandes, an Australian international-relations analyst who has experience with East Timor.

Such benefits may include indirect ones, such as more attention from the west, political analysts say. Countries like East Timor "would not necessarily fear closer integration with the Chinese economy", Fernandes said.

East Timor has expressed its intention on upgrading its relationship with China to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3250174/australia-steps-aid-east-timor-amid-chinas-growing-influence-pacifi