Subject: Age: A Fair Deal for E. Timor

The Age Tuesday, March 30, 2004


A Fair Deal for East Timor

If Australia and East Timor cannot agree on a maritime boundary, let the court decide.

East Timor's viability as a nation depends in large part upon its ability to exploit limited resources.

Despite massive international aid efforts since the departing Indonesian military and anti-independence militias laid waste to 70 per cent of the island's infrastructure, the East Timorese economy remains fragile.

Its limited agricultural base aside, the one bright spot on the economic horizon for the world's newest nation lies deep beneath the Timor Sea. The oil and natural gas reserves of the surrounding waters represent the future prosperity of this tiny country.

Those resources also represent the point at which Australian and East Timorese interests collide. Australia is well aware of the worth of the oil and gas riches in the Timor Sea.

It should not be forgotten that when Australia recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, it took the dubious course of entering into an agreement to develop a "zone of co-operation" with Indonesia for the exploitation of those resources, without any reference to the wishes of the East Timorese people.

A final delineation of the maritime boundary between Australia and East Timor will determine which nation controls those assets.

Dili believes this would be in its interests and claims Canberra is not moving quickly enough to complete the boundary, while in the meantime continuing to exploit the oil reserves to Australia's profit. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri says international law demands that Australia "exercise restraint in respect of the exploitation of disputed maritime areas".

East Timor has threatened to take the matter before the International Court of Justice, despite Australia's position that it will not submit to the court's jurisdiction on matters of disputed maritime boundaries.

Australia has a moral obligation to continue to deal with its neighbour both fairly and transparently. If there is a genuine dispute that the parties cannot resolve bilaterally - and from the words of Dr Alkatiri that certainly appears to be the case - then it is in Australia's interests as much as East Timor's to have the matter independently arbitrated.

As a bare minimum, legislation currently before the Australian Parliament dealing with the exploitation of oil and gas reserves should be held over until the position is clarified.

If, as Australia claims, it has acted fairly towards its tiny neighbour, then it has nothing to fear from having the matter referred to the international court.

Ultimately, it is in Australia's interests to behave generously towards East Timor. Oil revenues from the Timor Sea for Australia are incidental compared to their importance and value to East Timor.

Yet from both economic and security perspectives, a viable neighbour is far preferable to a vulnerable one trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependence on foreign aid.

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