This article is part of Right Now’s March issue, focusing on East Timor.
By Tom Clarke
Published March 10, 2014
Since the discovery of vast oil deposits under the Timor Sea in the early 1970s, oil has been the ever-present third player in Australia’s relationship with East Timor.
Prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott infamously sent a cable back to his political masters in Canberra suggesting Australia’s chances of securing a more lucrative deal over the Timor Sea resources would be better if Indonesia controlled East Timor. It read:
“This could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia by closing the present gap than with Portugal or an independent Portuguese Timor.”
This set the tone for the next 25 years of Australia’s response to Indonesia’s illegal occupation of East Timor which saw the death of over 200,000 Timorese men, women and children. Australia was all too eager to cosy up to the Suharto dictatorship for political and economic gain.
The 1989 Timor Gap Treaty confirmed this for the world to see.
The treaty was signed by Australia’s foreign minister at the time, Gareth Evans, and Indonesia’s foreign minister, Ali Alatas, as they clinked champagne glasses in an aeroplane flying high above the Timor Sea. Two men divvying up resources that did not belong to either of the nations they represented. It was Timor’s Oil.
Today, an independent East Timor enjoys 90% of the government revenue from one of the key fields in the Timor Sea, Bayu-Undan. However, the dispute over other significant deposits located nearby is still raging and some deposits, namely the Laminaria-Corallina fields, have nearly been depleted without Timor receiving a cent.
The dispute is likely to continue in one form or another until permanent maritime boundaries are established between East Timor and Australia.
East Timor has never had permanent maritime boundaries. It wants permanent boundaries and, as a sovereign nation, it is entitled to have them. Australia however, has consistently refused to establish boundaries with East Timor. Instead it has jostle our tiny neighbour into a series of temporary resource sharing arrangements – all of which short-change East Timor out of billions of dollars in government revenues to which it is entitled.
To understand the complexities of the current dispute, it helps to step through the various milestones that led to the current state of play.
In 1972 Australia and Indonesia agreed on a seabed boundary. This was based on the now out-dated “continental shelf” argument and the boundary was a lot closer to Indonesia than Australia. Because Portugal, the then colonial ruler of Timor, did not participate in the negotiations, a gap was left in the boundary. This became know as “The Timor Gap”.