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24 August 2022

With Grant Wyeth

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.

Chickpea diplomacy

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.



A free extract from “The Fix” by Thom Woodroofe

THE PROBLEM: The Albanese government inherited an Australian reputation on climate change which is in tatters around the world. In the last decade, we have gone from being perceived as a leader to a laggard. While both sides of politics are now committed to net zero emissions, neither has outlined a short-term pathway to reduce emissions that is consistent with our biggest friends and allies or that will keep global temperature increases within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Australia’s recent stance has had consequences for climate-related threats at home, as well as for our geopolitical circumstances. In the last year alone, we’ve experienced unprecedented floods; the United States singled out climate change as a point of contention in its relationship with the Morrison government; and Solomon Islands struck up a security relationship with China after years of disappointment with Australia – principally about our inaction on climate change.”CONTINUE READING



Weekly round-up

The new threat worrying Australian diplomats isn’t China

“If fear of China is the dominant narrative in the Australian strategic consciousness, another fear dare not speak its name … It concerns deepening political instability fostered by Donald Trump, though not arising from him alone, the threat to the US alliance network and the lack of coherence in US China policy in particular.” James Curran,Australian Financial Review

Why can’t Beijing renounce force against Taiwan?

“Any Chinese leader shifting away from the position of unifying Taiwan by whatever means would be engulfed by nationalistic sentiment, developed throughout China’s modern history and strengthened in the Chinese patriotic education in the post–Cold War era.” Jade Guan,The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Canberra levers up to the growing debt crisis

“Another lever the Albanese government could pull in addressing the crisis is to respond to the call from NGOs for targeted increases in aid … aid is a miniscule proportion of the Federal Budget – an amount constituting around 0.7 per cent of spending in 2022–23 and which is projected to fall in real terms. Increasing aid would not add to the budget deficit in any significant way.” Cameron Hill,East Asia Forum


China, Indonesia and Malaysia – waltzing around oil rigs

“Both nations … believe that for their economically beneficial relationships with China to deepen, Beijing should be afforded the room to express hostility within respectively agreeable redlines … China will continue to push, and both Malaysia and Indonesia will continue to protest. This is something that both countries have seemingly accepted as the reality of living next door to a giant.” Emirza Adi Syailendra,The Diplomat

Australia–Korea relations about commerce, not strategy

“There remains much space for cooperation in areas such as e-governance, digital studies, green energy, and migration. But until both countries put in the effort to build people-to-people links, there will remain a fundamental disconnect.” Jeffrey Robertson,Asialink Insights

New from Black Inc Books

Safety Net

Daniel Mulino

Economist and Labor MP Daniel Mulino explains how the Australian welfare state was created – and what we need to do to protect and extend it

The welfare state is one of the crowning achievements of the twentieth century, giving citizens access to healthcare, pensions, disability and unemployment benefits. This unprecedented expansion of the state was a product of the postwar period of the late 1940s, when governments ramped up investment in this grand safety net. By the 1970s, half of all government spending went towards social-welfare programs, but today the welfare state stands at a crossroads, beset both by political opposition and funding pressures as the population ages.

Australian Labor Party MP Daniel Mulino provides a sweeping account of the history of welfare in Australia and abroad, from Bismarckian Germany to present-day Canberra. In this deeply researched and lucid account, Mulino looks to the challenges facing today’s welfare state and reflects on what steps must be taken to protect and extend more



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