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Australia, Timor Leste, and the South China Sea Dispute - Why the time is right to renegotiate the T

Earlier this month, Australia’s shadow foreign minister, Tanya Plibersek, announced the federal opposition's commitment to renew negotiations over a more equitable maritime boundary between Timor Leste and Australia under a future Labor government.

This is an important proposal that has come at the right time: it will ensure an improvement in Timor Leste-Australia relations, guarantee that Dili is firmly oriented towards Australia’s orbit instead of China’s and will reinforce that the notion of Australia as a constructive and consistent international citizen in the Asia-Pacific.

The history of the Timor Leste-Australia maritime dispute continues to stifle relations between Dili and Canberra. The existing maritime boundary dates back to a 1972 treaty between Indonesia and Australia that recognised Australia’s sovereignty over the seas above the Australian continental shelf. This agreement generously extended Australia’s exclusive economic zone to within 50 nautical miles of Timor Leste, diminishing the island’s sovereign reach and advantaging Australia’s economic interests - the gas and oil fields in the Timor Strait are worth $40 billion annually.

When Timor Leste achieved formal independence in 2002, it was crippled by economic and political instability it the years immediately following. During this tumultuous period, Australia negotiated treaties that never re-examined the official maritime border. Instead, shared access to the resource rich seas was granted, enabling both Australian and Timorese industry access to oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

Dili has continually been aggrieved by the existing situation, and feels that Australia took advantage of it as a powerless new state in negotiating these treaties during Timor Leste’s first few years of independence. Timor-Leste has gone so far as to take Australia to the International Court of Justice over these grievances.

Renegotiating the maritime boundary now would not only right what is often perceived as an historical wrong. It would also send a clear message to the region that Australia is a strong and consistent normative force in the Asia Pacific - a message that is particularly salient given the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.

As tensions in the South China Sea increase, so too does the pressure for Australia to send signals to China that its assertiveness over the disputed waters is unwelcome. The recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles by China into the area has further inflamed regional tensions and heightened the stakes of the ongoing dispute.

It is important that Australia takes a firm stance on any regional belligerence by China or other actors, particularly with regard to the South China Sea disputes. It is a strategically and economically important region for the entire Asia-Pacific community.

However, the legitimacy of Australian assertiveness in reinforcing international norms regarding maritime law must be backed up by a credible and consistent foreign policy that wholeheartedly respects and promulgates these norms.

As the region grows exponentially, Australia has an opportunity to be a strong normative leader within the Asia-Pacific. But the ongoing disagreement with Timor Leste to some extent undermines Australia’s credibility when it comes to maritime disputes, and gives China a reason to ignore Australian opinions on the South China Sea issue.

While the Australian government continues to claim the existing Timor Leste-Australia maritime border is fair and equitable, others argue that the arrangement is indeed exploitative and Australia has taken advantage of weak neighbours - both Indonesia (at the time of the initial border treaty) and Timor Leste in the turbulent years after independence - to create an arrangement that maintains Australia’s ongoing interests at the expense of its weaker, poorer neighbour.

The optics of such a policy are unhelpful to Australia’s regional ambitions. The Australian brand in the Asia-Pacific should be one rooted in positive economic engagement and good international citizenship. But while the dispute continues over the Timor Leste-Australia border, and Dili continues to feel wronged by Canberra, the risks of an even more fractious relationship between the two countries grows, and Australia’s regional standing is diminished.

The federal opposition's proposal to revive negotiations with Timor Leste is not tokenistic. Such a gesture is important in maintaining Australia's moral and normative credibility in a region that is increasingly outgrowing its southern neighbour. Similarly, it is vital in permanently orienting Timor Leste towards Australia’s orbit and not China’s - a goal which is emphasised in the 2016 Defence White Paper.

Now is the time to settle the ongoing border dispute, to better consolidate the Timor Leste-Australia relationship, and to re-assert Australia’s legitimacy as a normative leader in the Asia-Pacific.

Edward Cavanough is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs. He tweets at @actoncavanough and can be reached at

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: David Stanley (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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