24 August 2022
Timor-Leste eyes China
Timor-Leste’s president, José Ramos-Horta, has learnt from Pacific islands countries that fear of Chinese influence is an incredibly effective way to get the West’s attention. The maritime boundary dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste was finally settled in 2018, but since then there has been another conflict over how best to exploit the oil and gas from the Greater Sunrise field, 70 per cent of which lies within Timor-Leste’s exclusive economic zone.
Ramos-Horta’s problem is that Australia’s Woodside Energy is keen to build a pipeline to Darwin for processing, despite it being further from the gas field. Although royalties would flow to Dili, the country needs not only money, but the employment and skills that would come from processing the gas.
Ramos-Horta is now warning that if Woodside does not alter its plans and build a pipeline to Timor-Leste, he will instigate talks with Chinese companies that will. “Very soon, [Timor-Leste’s] leadership has to make decisions … if necessary, a trip to China,” he told Guardian Australia. Ramos-Horta is hoping this threat will frighten Canberra into pressuring Woodside to submit to his demands. The issue for Woodside is that the infrastructure to process the gas already exists in Darwin, making it far more commercially viable.
This has left Canberra divided between economic and geopolitical realities. As a small, relatively new and poor country, Timor-Leste requires assistance to build its capabilities. It is also in Australia’s interests for Timor-Leste to develop into a stable and prosperous country. But what Ramos-Horta is asking in terms of exploiting Greater Sunrise simply may not be possible.
Huawei in the Pacific
Adding to Australia’s regional difficulties is the Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, who seems to enjoy causing Canberra weekly headaches. Last week, Solomon Islands announced that it had secured a A$96 million loan from China to build 161 mobile communications towers, to be supplied and constructed by Huawei – a company that Australia, the United States, United Kingdom and Canada have all banned from its 5G networks.
Last time Solomon Islands signed a contract with Huawei – in 2018 to build an underwater telecommunications cable – Canberra intervened, creating the Coral Sea Cable Company. This is a joint operation between the Australian government and two Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea companies which built a cable from Sydney to both Honiara and Port Moresby. The Australian government also recently provided funds for Telstra to purchase mobile carrier Digicel’s Pacific assets to prevent any Chinese company from doing so.
Only around 32 per cent of Solomon Islanders have access to the internet, and many rural areas don’t have mobile coverage. The needs of the country are great, which makes partnerships with suitors like China compelling. Yet Huawei’s close links to the Chinese Communist Party, and China’s national security laws which require companies to cooperate with national intelligence work, makes partnerships like this a risky proposition.
Nonetheless, Australia is unlikely to intervene. A power dynamic has developed between Sogavare and the Australian government which will require Canberra to accept certain risks with his relationship with China to try to prevent him from seeking greater ones.
Last week, the foreign minister, Penny Wong, announced the latest grant recipients from the Australia-India Council (AIC), a division within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The AIC was established in 1992 following an inquiry into the relationship between Australia and India, with a mission to advance trade and other forms of collaboration, and foster awareness and understanding between the two countries.
The grant recipients included a project to develop a new strain of chickpea capable of being grown in low-water environments. The project is a collaboration between Flinders and Murdoch universities and India’s International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. Currently chickpeas require medium-water environments and nitrogen-rich soils. In Australia, these conditions occur in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. Both Australia and India would benefit from drought-resistant varieties of chickpeas.
Australia only began commercial chickpea production in the 1970s but has become the world’s largest exporter. Yet Australian production is dwarfed by India, which is responsible for 70 per cent of the global total. However, India is also the world’s largest importer of chickpeas, which are a staple across the populous north of the country.
Unfortunately, for Australian producers, chickpeas did not benefit from the interim Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement, which was signed in April. But exports could be boosted by making northern Western Australia a chickpea production region, which would involve cutting water and shipping costs. This would also assist Australia’s long-term goal for greater development of northern Western Australia.