Mark Dodd | April 16, 2008
IMPOVERISHED East Timor has signed a $28 million deal with China to buy two advanced patrol boats in a move that will alarm Australia and Indonesia about increasing Chinese influence in the struggling nation.
The deal was signed on April 12 by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, Secretary of State for Defence Julio Pinto and Hao Yantan from the Chinese defence company Poly-Technic.
China has been steadily increasing its presence in East Timor. It is involved in oil and gas exploration and was responsible for compiling a geological survey of the half-island state.
China has also recently built a massive Foreign Ministry office on Dili’s waterfront.
The contract for the patrol boats provides for 30 East Timorese defence force personnel to undergo training in China. Foreign policy experts yesterday expressed concern at the deal and said money would be better spent on social infrastructure.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, East Timor is the poorest country in the Asia-Pacific region. It was ranked 142nd of 177 countries in the 2006 UN Human Development Report, and fared poorly on key indicators such as life expectancy, literacy and GDP per capita. About 44 per cent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.
Details of the agreement were confirmed yesterday by Dili-based diplomatic sources.
The patrol boat purchase was foreshadowed in an East Timor defence blueprint called the Force 2020 Report, details of which were first revealed in The Australian last June.
A DFAT spokesman said it had no public comment to make about the deal. But respected defence strategist Paul Dibb said if the patrol boats came armed, it would be a concern for Canberra, which is expected to provide more than $72 million in foreign aid to East Timor this year.
“It’s a matter of how much further it goes, and what sort of footprint China sees it has the right to have in our immediate neighbourhood where clearly we (Australia) see ourselves as the leading power with the most influence,” Professor Dibb said.
“If they are basically civilian-type Customs patrol boats, then that’s one thing. But if they are built by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and were armed, then that might start to raise a deal more interest (in Canberra),” he added.
Defence expert Alan Behm said East Timor would learn quickly that patrol boats were expensive to operate and maintain. He said a better investment would have been for the Gusmao-led Government in Dili to improve social infrastructure.
The East Timor deal follows moves by Indonesia to acquire Russian submarines and other military equipment, part of a $1.2 billion line of credit offered by President Vladimir Putin on a visit to Jakarta last September.
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer described as “totally unrealistic” the Force 2020 military blueprint, which called for a 3000-strong defence force backed by missile-equipped warships.
He said East Timor’s priorities should be to focus on improving living standards rather than spending on sophisticated military equipment.
A report this week in East Timor’s Diario Nacional newspaper quoted government officials as saying the boats would be 43m long and would be used to patrol East Timor’s fishing grounds that, like Australia’s northern coast, suffer from poaching.
Former colonial power Portugal gave East Timor two ageing Albatross-class patrol boats armed with 20mm cannon but both ships are in need of repairs. The East Timorese defence force was also hard-pressed to find the $500,000 a year required to keep the boats running.
“Nobody is arguing that East Timor needs to be able to control its own waters, but to sign a $28 million patrol boat contract with the Chinese raises questions about affordability and says much about the expanding role of China here,” said a Dili-based Western security analyst, who asked not to be named.