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Australia Did Not Act in the ’Spirit of Friendship’ With Timor Leste

Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has conceded that past government actions towards Timor Leste, particularly over the Greater Sunrise gas and oil project, were not accomplished“in the spirit of friendship.”

Ms. Wong’s comments come days after former East Timor (Timor Leste) independence fighter Xanana Gusmao was sworn in as prime minister following his party’s election victory in May.

Mr. Gusmao has previously said he would push Australia for a gas pipeline to be built from the Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea to his country’s south coast if his party won the country’s parliamentary election.

Speaking in Timor Leste’s capital, Dili, on July 7, Ms. Wong said she wanted to “acknowledge some of the past” negotiation disputes between both countries over the maritime boundary in the Greater Sunrise gas fields.

“Australia looked at this issue too narrowly and without properly considering the importance of this issue in the context of your path to sovereignty,” Ms. Wong said.

In 2016, Timor Leste launched a conciliatory process against Australia over the maritime boundary dispute before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

It was alleged that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service installed listening devices in Timor-Leste’s cabinet room in 2004 to gain an advantage in the negotiations on the maritime boundaries. The Turnbull government attempted to block the conciliation process.

“The Australian government should not have formally challenged the competence of the conciliation commission when a broader, more understanding approach was needed that reflected the unique relationship we had with such a close neighbour,” Ms. Wong said.

“It was not in the spirit of our friendship, from our struggle together in World War II to our support for your young nation after independence.”

Greater Sunrise Project ‘Unfinished Business’

Ms. Wong said Australia’s Labor government recognised the Greater Sunrise project as “unfinished business.”

At the same time, Timor Leste’s economy has been dependent on earnings from its oil and gas reserves, which are expected to be depleted in a decade.

Mr. Gusmao previously told The Sydney Morning Herald that if Australia supported the plan to build a gas pipeline from the Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea to the country’s south coast rather than to Darwin, it would amend Australia’s “bad behaviour” over the past two decades.

In addition to this, Timor Leste President Ramos Horta previously argued that his country would be on a “financial cliff” if the Greater Sunrise project did not operate within the next 10 years.

Ramos-Horta previously told The Guardian that his country would consider Chinese investment if “other development partners,” such as Australia, refused to invest in the development of a pipeline to East Timor or Timor Leste.

“Prime Minister Gusmao was right to say that Greater Sunrise needs to be a feasible and economically sound solution that creates a petroleum industry that can yield direct economic dividends for your people,” Ms. Wong added.

“Australia has been listening carefully to understand your ambitions for Greater Sunrise. I can assure you that Timor-Leste’s commitment to onshore processing and to the south coast Tasi Mane project is clearly understood.”

The Greater Sunrise gas fields are located approximately 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of Darwin and 150 kilometres south of Timor-Leste. It is estimated to be worth around $70 billion (US$50 billion) and holds around 226 million barrels of gas.

Timor Leste controls 57 percent of the Greater Sunrise, Australia’s Woodside controls 33 percent, and Japan’s Osaka Gas controls 10 percent.

Former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks is a key figure in negotiations with the Australian government’s special representative for Greater Sunrise.

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