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Ramos-Horta dismisses concerns about East Timor's new pact with China

Australian Associated Press - September 29, 2023

East Timor has not discussed military co-operation with China in its upgrade of diplomatic ties, President Jose Ramos-Horta says, adding Australia and Indonesia can "sleep at peace" because the island nation won't be a security concern to its neighbours.

China's increasing assertiveness in efforts to form security ties with developing countries in close proximity to Australia have raised alarm bells in Canberra, and a recent shake-up of Australia's defence has refocused on protecting its northern approaches.

A Comprehensive Strategic Framework signed by East Timor during a meeting between Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and China's President Xi Jinping in China last week covered development co-operation in agriculture and infrastructure, the Nobel laureate said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

The agreement also provided scope for funding from China including government and commercial loans to East Timor, Ramos-Horta said.

"Right now we don't have a single loan from China," he said. "In the future we might request a loan from China ... We will not accept any unmanageable, unsustainable loan with too-high interest payment."

Some Australian politicians expressed concern after China's state media reported on Saturday that Beijing's agreement with East Timor, about 700km northwest of Australia, also covered military exchanges.

China struck a security pact last year with the Solomon Islands, 2000km to Australia's northeast, heightening Canberra's wariness of Beijing's naval ambitions.

No military talks

"It was never discussed in terms of military co-operation – never discussed – and the Chinese side also never raised this issue," Ramos-Horta said.

East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, aims to join the regional bloc ASEAN by 2025 as it seeks to reduce high poverty rates.

"We would never bring in a foreign element into Timor Leste that would be viewed by the rest of ASEAN as endangering ASEAN policy of neutrality or peace and security," he said.

"Indonesia and Australia, we can include Singapore and Malaysia – they are the countries that are closest to us – can always sleep at peace.

"Timor Leste is not going to be a nuisance, a concern in terms of security."

Timor has extensive security co-operation with Australia, which is also its top aid donor, with Canberra providing military and police advisers and patrol boats, Ramos-Horta said.

"This is so far only with Australia," he said.

China's support was primarily in infrastructure including government buildings, finance, agriculture and health, he said.

A large delegation of Chinese companies arrived in East Timor's capital Dili on Thursday to continue discussions on potential investment in oil and gas projects, he said.

The main focus for East Timor is finalising a joint venture agreement with Australian company Woodside Energy for the joint development of the Greater Sunrise gas project, Ramos-Horta said.

Gas wrangle

East Timor is looking to start producing natural gas from its Greater Sunrise fields in 2030, which will be critical to the Southeast Asia island nation's economy.

Australia has appointed an envoy to speed up negotiations between East Timor and Woodside. Gusmao's government wants gas to be piped to East Timor and not Australia.

Ramos-Horta said food security remains a major issue for East Timor, 22 years since it gained independence from Indonesia.

It needs needed investment in irrigation and roads, and to provide financial incentives to farmers to "feed its people", he said.

Australia, as one of the world's most developed agricultural nations, should commit funds and technology to the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development, along with European nations and the United States, to address the agriculture challenges posed by climate change to small farmers globally, Ramos-Horta said.

"Otherwise we are heading to human tragedy in years to come," he said.

Source: https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/world/2023/09/29/east-timor-china-tie-no-threat