Frenemies in the Timor Sea

East Timor and Australia are friends again. But a grudging friendship for mutual benefit that replaces the outright animosity that existed before. And like most fallouts, it revolved around money.

In 1974, the collective Greater Sunrise fields were discovered in the Timor Gap, an area of the Timor Sea that lies between Australia and then-Portuguese colony East Timor. With estimated reserves of some 5.13 tcf of natural gas – equivalent to about a third of current global LNG consumption – it is a jewel that is begging to be developed. However, Indonesia invaded East Timor – which had only enjoyed independence from Portugal for 9 days – and administered it until 2002; among the many things it conducted on ‘behalf’ of the Timorese was to agree on a maritime border with Australia.

As it finally became independent in 2002, the new East Timor (Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) needed new friends. Indonesia wasn’t the best option, so it turned to Australia, its largest international supporter. But the riches in the Timor Sea proved too vast. Although the young and naïve East Timor did agree on treaties governing joint development of the Timor Gap and Greater Sunrise, it also asserted that it did not recognise the maritime border agreed by Indonesia with Australia. Rather, it argued for a border that is equi-distance between East Timor and Australia; a move that would put Greater Sunrise within Timorese waters…


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