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East Timor navy buys Chinese boats

Radio Australia - June 7, 2010

A military parade and blessing ceremony is planned in East Timor later this week to formally mark the arrival of two patrol boats purchased from China. The Shanghai-three-class vessels will be used to combat illegal fishing and other illicit activities in East Timor's territorial waters. East Timor's 2008 decision to go with the Chinese made vessels came as China sought to exert more influence through the use of so-called soft power, in general in developing nations, and specifically in oil and gas rich East Timor. With the boats now moored in East Timor, Australia is saying it's a bilateral matter for East Timor and China.

Presenter: Linda Mottram

Speaker: Anna Powles, East Timor security analyst

Mottram: The cacophany as the two vessels arrived in East Timor late last month, destined for their new home at Hera naval base. The boats were purchased in a deal with China's Poly Technology for 28-Million U-S dollars... with payments being made in five installments between 2008 and 2010. On the bridge as the vessels arrived, an East Timorese officer was watched by Chinese counterparts.

Mottram: East Timor's Secretary of State for Defence, Julio Tomas Pinto, who's written in detail about the failings of East Timor's security sector, was also on hand for the arrival... all captured by Tempo Semanal newspaper and posted on their website.

Mottram: His ministry released a statement saying the vessels were necessary and urgent for use by the East Timorese maritime police and national navy in response to illegal activities in east Timor's exclusive economic zone... including illegal fishing and human trafficking, as part of an evolving East Timorese national defence policy.

The 1960s vessels, including mounted machine guns, reportedly have a range of more than 700 miles, with the ability to stay at sea for a week without land support.

At the time East Timor was considering the Chinese option, in April 2008, Australia's defence department says it sent a maritime needs analysis team to East Timor, to look at options for maritime security co-operation, including the possibility that East Timor could participate in Australia's long-standing Pacific Patrolboat Program. The deal for the Shanghai class vessels was announced that very month, to complement two existing Portuguese made patrol boats, as the Australian analyis was being done. The analysis team concluded that it would be "surplus to identified needs," as an Australian defence spokesman put it, for East Timor to take part in the Pacific Patrol Boat scheme. China it seems, got in first, in an area Australia's foreign affairs department agrees is a priority for the East Timorese government.

Powles: It's absolutely critical that Timor has the capacity to monitor and conduct surveillance over it's maritime area.

Mottram: Anna Powles is an East Timor based security analyst, who says China offered the vessels which were she says a pretty good deal.

Powles: And it is part and parcel of Timor's growing relationship with China.

Mottram: China was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with East Timor at its independence in 2002. It has notably built some major buildings in the country... particularly paying for a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building and the Presidential Palace in Dili. China has a growing number of workers in the country with East Timor's oil and gas wealth an obvious attraction. And China has backed East Timor as a viable state, even when violence triggered doubts among others. So while Chinese aid to East Timor ranks well down the list of international donors, it has been seen by East Timor's government as a counter-balance to dependence particularly on Australia.

Observers caution against suggestions that China's role is a necessarily a matter for concern, though it could be argued that a gap has been left for China where Australian has failed to engage as effectively as it could have, in areas like security and the role of the Australian Defence Force, as well as questions about the effectiveness of Australia's aid program and critically in oil and gas, with ongoing tensions with Australia over the development of the Sunrise oil and gasfields. Anna Powles says an offer of patrol boats from Australia might have helped.

Powles: Well I think it would have made asbolute sense considering that Australia does engage in that kind of assistance throughout the Pacific region and it certainly would have made perfect sense in terms of its relationship with Timor and the fact that Timor and Australia are in such close vicinity and shares a common interest in terms of maritime security.

Mottram: Australia's Foreign Affairs Department says it doesn't expect to be consulted on other governments' commercial arrangements with third parties and that Australia was pleased that it was able to provide English language training to 36 Timorese Defence personnel to prepare them for patrol boat training in China.