Australia’s new move to thwart China threat
Fruit pickers from East Timor arrived in Australia earlier this month on a special Qantas charter to help farmers in Tasmania harvest berries for the season.
They were the first of the up to 150 seasonal workers from the impoverished nation to be brought over to fill worker shortages under the Federal Government's Seasonal Worker Program. A similar number also went to Bowen in Queensland.
The numbers are small but the COVID-19 related prompt has un-expectantly boosted Australia's relations with its tiny neighbour and critically somewhat balanced the ledger, offsetting the multi-billion dollars of investment China has put into the country as it continues its relentless Pacific expansion program.
To suggest the Federal Government and its security agencies are concerned about China's influence in that country, in the vacuum created by the government's own poor relations handling with Timor, would be an understatement.
Canberra is alarmed and has good reason to be.
Like in many countries across the Pacific and nations such as Papua New Guinea, China has debt-trapped Timor-Leste through loans for what ultimate ends are not fully clear.
But while China has for years sidelined Australia which has struggled with its own missteps and policy failures by successive governments, coronavirus has now opened a backdoor to diplomacy.
China's early intentions for East Timor were writ clear along the walls of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in capital Dili.
While East Timor has renowned natural landscapes and seas, there running for several metres in the ministry's main conference hall is a tapestry of the Great Wall of China.
"That was a very interesting signal," a senior government security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It told us where they were thinking … China has been messing about the Pacific this last year approaching Vanuatu about a military capability, Solomon Islands, Fiji, PNG but more concerningly East Timor.
"Timor is 600km north of Darwin, that's a 30-minute flight in a jet fighter and if there is any sign of their interest, it's everywhere."
With minimal fanfare, China money has built Timor's foreign ministry, defence department headquarters, military headquarters, the president's palace, the airport, the main hospital, a sealed four-lane freeway along the south of the country and infrastructure in the capital.
It is also in the midst of this year building a $650 million Tibar Bay deep harbour container port and terminal, by the Beijing Government owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and part of the Tasi Mane "economic hubs" being created on a 155km stretch of the south. As off today, China-state owned firms have 20 projects underway in Timor, an indebtedness many Asian nations cite for quietly pushing to keep East Timor out of an ASEAN bloc it has long sought to join. They effectively own those assets through loans and ultimately the country's natural assets including potential for oil and gas.
"Strategically that's the sort of worries we've got, " the security official said. "We've got a China now increasingly using coercion bullying, with or without a military presence moving into our strategic space from all sides of Australia including north with East Timor. Like PNG, what their government's do next is being watched closely."
Australia has had a fractured relationship with Timor firstly over maritime boundaries then the split of the spoils around the Greater Sunrise oil and gas projects potentially worth $50 billion. In 2012 they were at their low when it was revealed Australian ASIS spies covertly planted listening devices in an office adjacent to the Timor's Cabinet room where the Timor Gap discussion of Australian negotiations were being held, to seek upper-hand advantage. The controversy went all the way to The Hague's Court of Arbitration.
Indeed such is the messiness, no-one officially from the office of Foreign Minister Marise Payne, her foreign affairs department, Pacific Minister Alex Hawke nor the Australian embassy in Dili would comment to News Corp Australia on anything to do with East Timor, positive or negative.
ANU's National Security College Timor expert Andrea Fahey said without a doubt relations were sour but have markedly improved, ironically since COVID-19.
Australia has led foreign aid to Timor since its independence from Indonesia in 2002 and most recently provided a one-off $304.7 million COVID-19 response package for the Pacific and Timor. This has included testing equipment, isolation facilities and associated health crisis programs.
"Because of Covid I think Australia has a chance to go back into improving relations with East Timor," Ms Fahey who was in the UN Integrated Mission in East Timor in 2007 and 2012 and working locally with an NGO in between.
"Australia I think is seen as having a clear plan for the Pacific and East Timor for vaccination and economic help, even though China sent a few PPE equipment in the beginning it's nothing compared to what Australia is doing. Just allowing East Timorese the chance to come and work here temporarily with visas for workers that's actually more important for the East Timorese government."
Former Australia's former deputy head of mission in Jakarta David Engel said Australian's shouldn't believe they were alone in their concerns about China.
He said Indonesia also look at all the activities of China on their doorstep, from East Timor and surrounds.
"The fact that China has been doing what it has been doing in the South China Sea has obviously struck a nerve in Indonesia particularly around the Natuna archipelago area in the northern part of Asia," he said.
"They look at the fact that Chinese coast guard vessels are guarding Chinese trawlers that are that fishing in Indonesia's economic exclusion zone as cause for real concern and real appreciation that just hoping that Chinese will behave themselves in that area is no longer going to be good enough. Timor yes but the rubber hits the road so to speak for Indonesia around Natunas, that's about fish and hydro carbons, tangible economic issues but also their sense of sovereignty what they consider legitimately what is theirs under international laws."
Independence hero and former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao has long courted China's involvement in East Timor's progress on a vague promise of jobs and prosperity but his recent departure has allowed for more balance and what security analysts brand a "relations reset".
"East Timor is just 80km away from Australian territory but dealing with China's expansion plans anywhere in the Pacific is like playing Whac-A-Mole, they keeping popping up elsewhere to pursue their interests and we just have to deal with that in our own way," a DFAT source said.