Matthew Knott – Foreign Minister Penny Wong has used a visit to East Timor to publicly rebuke the country's president, Jose Ramos-Horta, for using the media to pressure Australia over the terms of a massive potential gas project in the Timor Sea.
East Timorese politicians have been campaigning to convince Australian oil and gas company Woodside to agree to pipe gas from the Greater Sunrise field for processing in East Timor rather than the company's preferred option of Darwin.
Ramos-Horta last month warned East Timor would consider turning to China for investment if Woodside did not support on-shore processing in his nation, a threat the Australian government saw as inflammatory.
"What I have said is this has been stuck for many years," Wong said at a media conference in Dili when asked about the Greater Sunrise project.
"I've said to the president and to others, 'we need to unstick it, we need to see how a way through can be found'. What I will say is that will be best done respectfully and directly, not through the media."
Wong, who earlier travelled to Papua New Guinea, delivered a tacit warning to East Timor about deepening ties with China, saying that Australian development assistance and loans "are in the spirit of wanting East Timor to be more resilient".
"And we know that economic resilience can be affected, can be constrained, by unsustainable debt burdens or by lenders who have different objectives," she said.
Ramos-Horta, who previously served as president twice between 2007 and 2012, will travel to Australia next week for the first time since assuming the presidency again in May.
As well as an expected meeting with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, he will deliver an address at the National Press Club in Canberra.
"Timor-Leste would favourably consider partnership with Chinese investors if other development partners refuse to invest in bringing gas via pipeline to Timor-Leste," Ramos-Horta told Guardian Australia last month.
East Timor controls about 57 per cent of the Greater Sunrise offshore field, which is 450 kilometres north of Darwin. Woodside controls 33 per cent and Japanese company Osaka Gas 10 per cent.
The gas and condensate resources in the Sunrise field have an estimated value of more than $70 billion.
If the project does not proceed, the Australian government fears East Timor will exhaust the $26 billion sovereign wealth fund that finances almost all government spending by the end of the decade.
"We are all very aware of the fiscal and economic circumstances that are approaching," Wong said.
She said Greater Sunrise was an "extremely important" project for East Timor, and the Australian government wanted to see it succeed.
"The economic resilience of this nation matters because we share a region and we share a future," she said, standing beside East Timorese Foreign Minister Adaljiza Magno.
"It is important to recognise the joint venture partners will need to come to an agreement for that project to proceed... and as yet that hasn't happened," Wong said.