Rowan Callick – Australia should maintain troops in East Timor beyond their planned withdrawal after next year's elections, says the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The Timor Defence Force would need assistance until 2020, "not least to ensure" it remained focused on defence and not "political activities" and policing, the institute says in a new report.
The 400 Australian Defence Force personnel in East Timor are deployed as part of the International Stabilisation Force, which is mandated to start withdrawing from next year.
Police and legal structures also need to be supported and consolidated, the report says. Police have been trained under the "confusing and internally contradictory guidance" of the UN police deployment.
The government-funded Canberra think tank also sounds an alert about the growing influence of China. "The increasing assertiveness and almost certain expansion of China's 'soft power' approach towards East Timor will challenge Canberra's political influence," it says. Australia should not, it says, "directly compete with China for East Timor's affections".
"Instead, the Timorese may need to be reminded, in more beguiling ways, of where its true and most reliable friendships lie. Working with the US in the security and defence realms in our region is also very important."
It says that a relatively small continuing ADF presence should have a cautionary capacity, helping to prevent further crises and, failing that, orchestrating a rapid and efficient response.
When off duty in Timor, ASPI recommends, ADF personnel should not wear uniforms and should not carry weapons in public – "which elicits negative responses among many Timorese when the threat environment is low". It urges "a more widely distributed intelligence function to allow the recognition of potential threats before and as they arise".
Australia should renew its offer, ASPI says, of contracted air surveillance of Timor's southern exclusive economic zone, heading into the Timor Sea towards Darwin. It suggests greater co-operation between ADF and Australian Federal Police officers, and between both institutions and AusAID to ensure "a more complete approach" to meeting East Timorese needs.
Australia is particularly well positioned, ASPI says, to help East Timor develop its agriculture.
"It has considerable expertise in dry land farming and conducts world-leading research into semi-tropical agriculture and livestock management."