APSN Banner

Timor rejected Chinese spy offer

Melbourne Age - May 10, 2011

Philip Dorling – China recently tried to establish a spy base in East Timor, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

The Chinese proposal to build and operate a surveillance radar facility on East Timor's north coast was made in December 2007, but was viewed with suspicion by senior East Timorese officials who consulted with the US and Australia before rejecting the project.

The Chinese initiative, described as "a strategic threat", is revealed for the first time in US embassy cables leaked to WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to The Age.

While Chinese diplomats insisted to their American counterparts that East Timor was "strategically unimportant" to Beijing, the US embassy in Dili reported to Washington in February 2008 that Deputy Prime Minister Jose Guterres had called in then US ambassador Hans Klemm to advise that Chinese defence firms had approached East Timor's government with an offer to establish a radar array to monitor shipping in the strategic Wetar Strait.

Although anxious to secure assistance to crack down on illegal fishing in East Timorese waters, Mr Guterres was suspicious of the Chinese offer to build and operate the radar facility free of charge.

"The only catch was the facilities were manned by Chinese technicians," Mr Guterres told the US embassy. He was concerned "the radars could be used for purposes other than those touted by the Chinese. They could instead be used to extend China's radar-based intelligence perimeter deep into South East Asia."

The Wetar Strait separates East Timor's north-eastern coast from Indonesia's Pulua Wetar Island and is reportedly used by US Navy vessels including nuclear submarines moving between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

An Australian defence intelligence source told The Age that Australian officials were aware of the Chinese proposal, which was "just another part of China's growing intelligence activity through Asia and beyond".

Other leaked US embassy cables contain references to expanding Chinese intelligence activities in south-east Asia including Philippines intelligence concerns that Chinese proposals to establish new consulates in the Philippines were intended to provide cover "to conduct SIGINT [signals intelligence] and other collection activities targeting US and Taiwanese military activities".

US diplomats in Dili reported that President Jose Ramos-Horta, Mr Guterres and Secretary of State for Defence Julio Pinto had "repeatedly and explicitly" affirmed that "Timor-Leste's strong preference is to co-operate with its democratic partners – Australia, Portugal, the US and Japan – on defence and security matters".

Chinese defence assistance to East Timor has been confined to construction projects, modest offers of training assistance and the supply of two, 40-year-old Shanghai-class patrol boats, a procurement decision that attracted some media attention in Australia last year.

Professor Hugh White, a former deputy secretary in the Defence Department, suggested that China's supply of the vessels to East Timor was an intrusion into Australia's sphere of strategic interest.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao told US diplomats in October 2008 that the acquisition of the patrol boats, to be manned by East Timorese, had been initiated during the government of former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, and that "Gusmao only went forward with it after he had been presented with clear evidence regarding the activities of fishing boats operating illegally in Timorese waters".

Canberra has said that the purchase of the two patrol boats is a bilateral issue for East Timor and China and that their contribution to fisheries surveillance is welcome.