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Time to draw the line between Australia and Timor Leste

  • 14 May 2013

Australian governments of both political persuasions have continued to reassure the Australian public that they are decent and special when it comes to dealing with the Timorese over disagreements in the Timor Sea. Time for such special pleading is over. For the good of ongoing relations between these two unequal neighbours, it is time for Australia to commit to negotiating final maritime boundaries, especially if the Timorese and the oil companies working in the Timor Sea cannot reach agreement on the mode of gas production.

First a little history of a very complex issue. While East Timor was still under Portuguese control, Australia and Indonesia finalised their maritime boundaries in 1972. Indonesia accepted Australia's claim that the Australian continental shelf extended as far as the Timor Trough, resulting in a boundary close to the Indonesian coastline. Portugal never accepted Australia's argument, claiming instead that there were not two separate continental shelves and that the boundary should be a median line between Timor and Australia.

Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975. By the time Indonesia and Australia sat down to discuss the unresolved maritime boundary off the coast of East Timor, Indonesia no longer accepted the Australian continental shelf argument. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) had been finalised and it favoured the drawing of a median line. Not wanting to undo the 1972 agreement, Australia and Indonesia agreed to a mutual standoff, sharing any resources off the Timor coastline found between the Timor Trough and the median line.

Once East Timor gained its independence, Australia convinced the new Timorese government to maintain the previous approach of the Indonesians, leaving border negotiations on the long finger. Australia played hardball. On 24 November 2000, Australian officials were so brazen as to warn UN officials who were putting the case for a negotiated Australia-Timor boundary in accordance with recent developments in international law that Australia might opt out of UN judicial processes. The option had already been put to Cabinet and no minister had objected.

The UN officials were warned: 'The more ambitious East Timor's claim, the easier it would be for the Government to pursue this approach in terms of living down domestic controversy.' This was 'Australia's get out of jail card'. On 25 March 2002, Australia did just that. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that 'any maritime boundary dispute is best settled by negotiation rather than litigation'.

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