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Did China support East Timor's independence from Indonesia?


‘The people of Timor-Leste will always remember the Chinese people’s valuable support in the country’s struggle for national independence’. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao to President Xi Jinping, Hangzhou, 23 September 2023.


Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s recent one-on-one with President Xi Jinping in China has attracted international headlines, not least in Australia where China’s push into the small states of the Pacific keeps politicians awake at night.  

At the meeting, the two leaders upgraded their already active relationship. China and its businesses will now invest more heavily in Timor-Leste. In addition to increased military interaction, enhanced cooperation will include Belt and Road initiatives in infrastructure, energy and agriculture.  

In choosing to increase its engagement with China, Timor-Leste is doing no more than Australia. China accounts for over 25 per cent of Australia’s exports and is Australia’s largest trading partner by a mile. Living in Melbourne, my phone, car and solar panels – to name only three basic items – were made in China.   

However, what economic dividend the Chinese behemoth will get in return from tiny Timor-Leste is not clear. Gas from the Timor Sea is one possibility if China funds Dili’s much debated onshore LNG processing project.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for Beijing, it’s all about extending China’s footprint south, another move in China’s long game of diplomatic mahjong, a game used to build relationships and expand one’s network of friends and influence.

To play the game well, Dili will need to have its eyes wide open. Avoiding over dependence on China and alienation of other geopolitical players in the region, like Australia and the US that are also important to Timor-Leste, will require deft handiwork. On the other hand, Timor-Leste has much to offer the region in non-economic terms. These include its commitment to democracy, non-violence and human rights, polar opposites of China’s system.

The US-China contest over Taiwan’s future illustrates Dili’s dilemma. On the one hand, as a democratic republic, Timor-Leste has much more in common with Taiwan than Beijing.  On the other, to serve its economic interests Timor-Leste has opted to side with China, a one-party state governed by the Communist Party of China. PM Xanana told President Xi that Taiwan is ‘an inalienable part of China’s territory and any forms of Taiwanese independence’ are opposed by Timor-Leste.


'The special relationship with Indonesia that Whitlam championed was shared by both Labor and Liberal prime ministers for most of the Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste, at great cost to the Timorese. It continues to enjoy the status of sacred dogma that is heresy to challenge, including in post-independence Timor-Leste.'


Managing more Chinese activity and Chinese in Timor-Leste will also require sensitive management by Timor-Leste at home. Dili is already replete with Chinese businesses that out-compete their Timorese counterparts.

What was most striking about PM Xanana’s response to President Xi’s statement was his praise of ‘the Chinese people’s valuable support in (Timor-Leste’s) struggle for national independence’. The declaration sat awkwardly alongside his opposition to Taiwanese independence but, more significantly, suggested that Timor-Leste was now re-paying a debt to China.

Did China champion Timor’s cause? Does Timor owe China?

Apart from the fact that the heavily censored Chinese people probably heard zilch about Timor’s struggle, and allowing for diplomatic bombast, the claim prompted me to check China’s record in the CAVR* Chega! Report, the Final Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor. The chapters on self-determination in Volume II contain several pages on each of the UN Security Council permanent members, including China (pp. 642-645).

The CAVR report provides a far more qualified account of China’s record on East Timor 1975-1999 than PM Xanana’s claim.

China supported Fretilin, the resistance movement that fought for the independence of East Timor, and its declaration of independence in November 1975 and in 1976 hosted a visit by Fretilin representatives to Beijing. In keeping with its policy of non-interference, it condemned Indonesia’s invasion at the UN and, except for 1979, voted for East Timor at each General Assembly session 1975-1982. Jose Ramos Horta has written that, early on, this diplomatic support was supplemented with financial contributions.

According to CAVR, however, ‘China’s support for Timor-Leste weakened during the 1980s due to gradually improving relations with Indonesia and a sense that independence was a lost cause’. Financial flows to Indonesia, described by CAVR as ‘spectacular’, and increased bilateral exchanges, followed. In 1991, Beijing received President Suharto on a state visit and assured him that China would not interfere in Indonesia’s ‘internal affairs’.

Apart from a sense of history repeating itself in reverse, China’s record can best be described as ‘having a bob each way’. Or, as the British ambassador to Indonesia, John Ford, told London in 1976, ‘too much notice should not be paid to their (Beijing’s) support of Fretilin: there were occasions when cannons need to be fired even if only paper balls were shot’.

President Suharto exploited Fretilin’s relationship with China to support his pseudo-claim that Fretilin was communist (and therefore expendable as in Indonesia in 1965) but also feared China would back Fretilin militarily. Gough Whitlam, Australia’s Prime Minister in 1975, told him not to worry. ‘There is little interest in Portuguese Timor on the part of China’, he told Suharto, adding that China would not want to jeopardise its relations with Indonesia.

The special relationship with Indonesia that Whitlam championed was shared by both Labor and Liberal prime ministers for most of the Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste, at great cost to the Timorese. It continues to enjoy the status of sacred dogma that is heresy to challenge, including in post-independence Timor-Leste. It remains to be seen if Beijing will now enjoy the same immunity.


*CAVR is the Portuguese language acronym for Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação. It functioned 2003-2005 and was Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.



Pat Walsh is the author of The Day Hope and History Rhymed in East Timor and Other East Timor Stories (2019). Pat served as special adviser to East Timor's CAVR commission, and helped design the country's successor body, Centro Nasional Chega!, to which he is an advisor.

Main image: Chinese President Xi Jinping Hosts Meeting With East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. (Parker Song-Pool / Getty images)

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, East Timor, Timor-Leste, China, Xi Jinping, Xanana Gusmao



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Existing comments

It is still, just possible that China is being strategically philanthropic but the “support” is more consistent with geopolitical chess.

denis bartrum | 06 October 2023  

Thanks for this very informative article, Pat. You are correct to point out that China is involved in Timor-Leste for its own ends and that Timorese leaders have been too generous in their praise of support for their independence struggle.

However, China did at least vote against Indonesia's invasion of East Timor at the UN. On the other hand, Australia's leaders and diplomats knew about the invasion before it occurred, aided and abetted Indonesia's orgy of genocide, human rights abuses and destruction and acted as apologists for Indonesian war crimes and criminals..

And these shameful action were taken against the East Timorese after they had suffered greatly at the hands of Japanese fascism because they supported Australian commanders during WW2. The East Timorese lost between 60,000 to 70,00 people out of a total population of 500,000. This is a staggering loss of life.
Australia lost about 40,000 out of a population of 7 million.

More recently, Australian and US leaders have become angry when Timor-Leste and other countries seek assistance from China saying they are being ungrateful!

Yes, Australian leaders did support the 1999 referendum that saw the east Timorese vote for independence and then the UN INTERFET peacekeeping force after the Indonesian military and its Timorese militias went on a further killing and destruction spree.

If I was an east Timorese political leader, I too would be very suspicious of Australian political leaders and diplomats.

A large part of the problem is that our leaders still continue to cooperate with the US Military Industrial Complex as evidenced by the acceptance of the irresponsible and dangerous AUKUS agreement by both the Morrison and Albanese governments.

We need our leaders to be far more committed to democracy, human rights, the international rule of law and fair dealings between nations than what they are.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 October 2023  
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I completeLY agree, just an addendum to your comment is Australia's bugging of Timor's leaders during the Greter Sunrise negotiations. Also one should not forget the bugging of President SBY so how could any one trust Australia. For the record I am an Australian.

Steven Jackson | 23 December 2023