Randy Mulyanto and Meaghan Tobin – Sceptics of East Timor's relations with China should know it is not a "new, fragile country" that can be easily swayed by others, its foreign minister said, citing how the nation handled its border dispute with larger neighbour Australia.
Dionisio da Costa Babo Soares, in an exclusive interview with This Week in Asia in Dili, pointed to how East Timor last year used a United Nations law to resolve its maritime boundary with Australia, which will pave the way for both countries to jointly develop shared oil and gas resources.
"Countries in the South China Sea cannot resolve [their boundary disputes] even though they've been there over 50 years.
"Timor Leste is only less than 20 years [old]," he said on Monday. East Timor, Asia's youngest democracy, will later this month mark the 20th anniversary of a referendum that led to its independence.
China has backed a major infrastructure drive in East Timor – a country of 1.3 million people – fuelling concerns that the island nation may have shouldered an unsustainable amount of debt, or worse, left itself vulnerable to Beijing's political influence.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation dismissed these views as belonging to "skeptics", saying the country's relationship with China and the rest of the international community was based on "mutual trust and benefit".
He pointed out that East Timor had much experience in navigating relations with foreign powers, having spent four centuries under colonial rule, which culminated in its occupation by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999.
"Sometimes people think that by being new and small, we can be easily carried away or pushed upon – but Timor Leste is stable and strong and able to manage itself.
"The idea that Timor-Leste's been tapped mainly to serve the interest of one single country, namely China, is completely wrong," Soares said.
Located 500km off Australia's north coast and sharing a border with Indonesia, East Timor has one of the lowest GDP per capita figures in the Asia-Pacific, according to information from the World Bank.
In the past two decades, it has raised US$17 billion through international aid and loans, as well as petroleum revenue.
In the 40-minute interview, Soares took pains to stress East Timor's strong relationships with countries other than China, even as he acknowledged the benefits of Beijing's largesse.
China was the first country to recognise independent East Timor and helped build its foreign ministry, defence ministry and presidential office buildings. Former president of East Timor Jose Ramos-Horta, in an interview last year, said China had made yearly donations of equipment or other items worth about US$7 million.
Beijing has also helped build the nation's electrical grid and cross-country highway. Last month, construction began on a US$490 million deep water port in East Timor's Tibar Bay, awarded to Chinese state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company.
Timorese civil servants and bureaucrats have also received training in China, said Soares, who became foreign minister in June 2018. He was previously secretary general of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, founded by independence leader and former president Xanana Gusmao.
Asked about East Timor's participation in Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative to boost global trade and connectivity, Soares said it fit well with the country's bid to boost its trade relationships with the rest of the world.
Earlier this month, Soares and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Bangkok on the sidelines of the Asean summit for bilateral talks, with the Chinese foreign ministry issuing a statement saying Beijing was "ready to draw up plans with Timor-Leste on cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative at an early date, and expand cooperation in such areas as petrochemical industry, trade, agriculture and fisheries".
Soares said the island nation's participation in specific belt and road projects was still under discussion.
"We have not really got down to the real implementation of any concrete project," he said, adding the two nations were in talks on petroleum, agriculture and tourism projects.
At the same time, Dili was still looking to partner other countries such as the United States, Australia and Indonesia, Soares said.
Australia is East Timor's biggest aid partner, having sent more than US$800 million from 2006 to 2014.
East Timor also remained open to trilateral partnerships, he said, highlighting an agriculture assistance project with both the US and China that began in 2013. However, the project had "dragged on" because of differences between the US and Chinese partners, he said.
"One's looking at food security, the other one is looking at the nutritional issue, and so on," he said, without elaborating.
Looking ahead, Soares said that Dili's focus is on strengthening the country's business environment, including the introduction of legislation intended to make foreign companies comfortable investing there. Corruption continues to be a problem for the nation, and basic services in healthcare and sanitation are lacking in rural areas.
So far, there are three foreign telecoms companies operating in the country and joint venture with an Australian company to develop cement and asphalt manufacturing is under discussion, Soares said. A partnership to develop an East Timor beer is also in the works with Dutch brewer Heineken, which has operations there.
East Timor's approach, Soares stressed, was to be friends with as many countries as possible and have "zero enemies". For several years now, it has tried to become part of the 10-member Asean bloc – an endeavour supported by Beijing – amid doubts over its contributions to the grouping.
"We place national priority at the centre, at the heart of all these relations... we have been very careful and respectful of our partners, not only China but also other countries.
"We don't see China as a threat to any other countries in the world, and we don't see other countries [being] a threat to China."