Timor Sea needs good-faith talk, not double-faced bully

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/9/9 8:46:59

The still fledgling Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste has taken Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague over their maritime boundary dispute.

Dili resorted to PCA compulsory conciliation on April 11 after Canberra had refused to engage in direct talks over the demarcation of a permanent boundary at the Timor Sea between the two neighbors.

Among others at stake is an oil and gas field known as Greater Sunrise and estimated to contain 40 billion US dollars' worth of resources. It lies closer to Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste wants to formally establish its sea border with the big southern neighbor along the median line equidistant between the two countries, which would place Greater Sunrise within its embrace.

Yet Australia, which has fixed its eyes on Timor Sea resources for long, has apparently pre-empted its young and small neighbor at every move, with means both high-handed and below-the-belt.

According to Xanana Gusmao, Timor-Leste's resistance hero and first president, on May 20, 2002, the very day of his country's independence, Canberra forced newborn Dili to sign the Timor Sea Treaty, which largely inherited a 1989 treaty between Australia and Indonesia, the then occupier of Timor-Leste, and set the temporary sea boundary line far north of the median line.

In 2006, the two countries inked a treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS). It provides for an equal distribution of revenues from the Greater Sunrise deposits, but also imposes a 50-year moratorium on claims to sovereign rights and demarcation of maritime boundaries.

Yet the validity of the CMATS was called into question after it emerged in 2012 that Australian agents, posing as aid workers, bugged Timor-Leste's cabinet room and enabled Canberra to gain unfair advantages in the negotiations that led to the 2006 treaty.

After Dili initiated a PCA arbitration in 2013 following the espionage revelations, Australian agents raided the office in suburban Canberra of a lawyer representing Timor-Leste in the case and seized a trove of documents.

And Dili has also found out that two months before its independence, Australia cunningly excluded itself from the compulsory settlement of maritime boundary disputes at the International Court of Justice and under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As for the ongoing PCA compulsory conciliation, Australia has insisted that the commission handling the case has no jurisdiction, and that even if it rules it has, its final report will not be binding.

Such domineering behavior makes a mockery of Canberra's holier-than-thou rhetoric just two months ago when it condemned China's "bullying" and preached international law over the South China Sea disputes.

Even if Canberra has a thick skin, its refusal to conduct direct talks with Dili, mixed with contempt of international norms and lapses of moral integrity, is a recipe for trouble.

If history is any guide, direct negotiation based on good faith is the best way to settle border disputes. It is high time that Australia heeded the historical lesson.

Posted in: Asia-Pacific

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