Subject: Relations with a new nation, How far South East is New Delhi prepared to go?

Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review - No 7 - Oct 2007

Timor Leste: Relations with a new nation How far South East is New Delhi prepared to go?

Loro Horta

Links between India and Timor date back to the early modern period when traders from the subcontinent reached the island in search of the precious sandalwood. These links grew further as a result of Portuguese colonisation of Timor and parts of India. The search for spices­then a highly prized in Europe­led the Portuguese to establish various garrisoned centres through India to run the lucrative trade and keep potential competitors at bay.

Portugal’s other Asian territories, such as the Flores, Larantuca, Maluku and Timor where administered by the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa, the centre of its Asian empire. In the early 17th century the first Portuguese-trained Goan missionaries arrived in Timor and played a central role in spreading the Catholic faith trough the land.

Indians continued to reach the shores of Timor as soldiers, colonial bureaucrats, missionaries and, in the late 19th century, some came as migrant labourers. These old links have left a permanent mark on Timorese society. A small community of Timorese of Goan descent still exists in independent Timor Leste (East Timor) and many of its members occupying preeminent positions is society. Among the most influential Indo-Timorese are Roque Rodrigues, former minister of defense, and Manuel Longuinhos, the prosecutor general and the country’s only surgeon. Others include senior ecumenical and business families.

Since the creation of Timor Leste as an independent country in May 2002 relations between Dili and New Delhi remained sporadic although friendly and cordial. India was the second country to recognise Timor Leste’s independence, just a few hours after China (a coincidence perhaps?). Two factors account for the sporadic nature of bilateral ties: distance and more pressing needs on the part of New Delhi, such as consolidating its presence in near Southeast Asia in countries like Vietnam and Burma where perceived Chinese encroachment is taking place. On the part of Dili the same factors have limited the relationship: Timor Leste’s foreign policy priorities are focused on ASEAN, Australia and other important extra-regional powers such as Portugal.

However, despite the lack of state-to-state contacts, relations between the two peoples continued to foster. Under the United Nations, two senior Indian diplomats made valuable contributions to the new nation. Ambassadors Kamlesh Sharma and Atul Khare headed the United Nations mission in crucial periods. Ambassador Khare in particular assumed the position of special representative during the worst crisis the young nation ever faced, in early 2006. He has gained the respect of most Timorese as an honest friend of the country. He deserves some credit for the slow, but steady progress towards normalisation now in progress in the fledging state. Some Timorese have observed that because Khare is an Indian, a nation that struggled for its freedom, he is able to better understand the Timorese. With Timor Leste’s most urgent foreign policy priorities fulfilled and India’s growing engagement with Southeast Asia relations conditions are right to deepen bilateral relations in coming years. In 2004, Jose Ramos Horta, then foreign minister and now president, visited India in an effort to put life into the relations. Since then Indian interest in Timor Leste has been on the rise.

In 2006 Indian oil giant Reliance won two oil exploration blocks in the Timor Sea and further bids are possible. Tata has also sold 400 vehicles for use by the Timorese police and other government agencies. But the main potential lies in the possibility of some Indian companies teaming up with the Kuwait Fund to build major infrastructure projects, such as highways, tunnels, and new air- and seaport facilities. These contracts are believed to be in the order of US$300 million.

India is also providing scholarships for Timorese students in information technology, but also in agriculture and medicine. Some Timorese public servants have attended capacity building courses in India. The election of Ramos Horta as president in May 2007 may give a certain impetus to bilateral ties as he has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Indo-Timorese ties. Indeed, India is expected to open an embassy in Dili, Timor to reciprocate in 2009. Timor Leste has also shown considerable interest in establishing military co-operation with Delhi. The reputation for competence and the untarnished civil-military relations record of the Indian Army is seen as a model to be follow by the troubled Timorese defense force. In fact, just before the recent crisis Defence Minister Rodrigues was planning an official visit to New Delhi to discuss the possibility of Indian assistance in training and other areas.

While Indo-Timorese relations have experience a slow but steady increase, they still pale when compared with Sino-Timorese ties. Beijing’s presence is everywhere to be seen in the island and has intensified since the crisis. China is involved in major infrastructure projects such as the presidential palace and the ministry of foreign affairs. It is also training military officers and civil servants. Beijing seems to have no reluctance to go to the Southern-most corner of Asia.

At what pace will India engage with East Timor? There seems to be a rather disconcerting habit in Indian foreign policy of always arriving after China as in the case of countries such as Angola and Mozambique. How reactive or proactive will Indian foreign policy be towards Timor Leste and the region remains to be seen.

- Loro Horta is a research associate fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He previously worked as an advisor to Timor Leste’s Ministry of Defence.

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