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Crossing the Line: Australia's Secret History in Timor Sea, Kim McGrath
The Australian - December 2, 2017
It has made prime ministers from William McMahon to Malcolm Turnbull look mean and tricky, and yet, Kim McGrath suggests in this brisk account of it all, it might be one of those issues where the Wilsonian approach would have served the national interest better.
Against expectations of it becoming a failed state or, earlier, a Cold War pawn, the once war-ravaged East Timor was ranked this year along with Singapore, Norway and Britain as being in a "high state of peace". It is still impoverished, but the 2016 Boston Consulting Group's Sustainable Economic Development Assessment ranked it seventh out of 160 states in making the most progress towards converting economic development into well-being.
Moreover, it is now closer diplomatically to China and Indonesia than it is to Australia, and people on the streets don't like us much. Though national defence considerations come into it, the main problem has been money, in the form of an oil and gas province that lies right on the border under the disputed seabed that separates East Timor from Darwin.
"Australia has collected billions of dollars in revenue from permits issued north of the median line in waters that, according to international law, fall within Timor-Leste's EEZ [economic exclusion zone]," McGrath writes.
The issue has always been a hard one. The law of the sea once gave countries control over the seabed on their continental shelf, which for Australia is very large, especially to the north. With Timor, Australia got what seemed like a free kick, as the shelf dropped away sharply near the Timor coast. But McGrath reveals that as early as 1970 the Bureau of Mineral Resources challenged this with advice that the continental shelf continued under Timor.
About the same time, the UN began a process to codify the international law of the sea and the right to an EEZ up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from the coast gained credence. For overlapping claims, such as in the Timor Sea, where the coasts were less than 400 nautical miles apart, a median line would apply unless a treaty provided otherwise.
Onshore oil seeps in East Timor had long pointed to the likelihood of oilfields offshore. After offshore drilling became practical in the 1960s, Canberra awarded exploration permits to Australian-based (though mainly multinational) companies. The area around the so-called Timor Trough was considered the most prospective for oil.
Who to negotiate with? Portugal had colonised East Timor back in the 1500s but it was a remote, poor and ethnically mixed loose end of the Portuguese empire. The US and Indonesia, as well as Australia, did not have much faith in Portuguese staying power. With Australia's enthusiastic support, Suharto's Indonesia took it over in 1975 when Portugal began disbanding its empire.
Portugal did not accept the Indonesian takeover and nor did dominant opinion in its fractious former colony, which wanted independence. Indonesia, but not Portugal, had agreed to a sea boundary relatively favourable to Australia in return for Canberra's support for its own controversial sea boundary encircling the whole archipelago. It negotiated a joint production-sharing arrangement for the border area most prospective for oil, which subsequent exploration showed favoured Australia.
Post-Suharto Indonesia set East Timor free, again with enthusiastic support from Canberra in 1999, but only after violent years in which about 200,000 of its people died.
The new country wanted a much better oil deal and after a long, tortuous dispute, has taken Australia to a UN compulsory conciliation hearing.
The saga has been regularly in the news over two generations, but McGrath adds spicy new material from the archives about backstage Canberra manoeuvrings: intrigue, cover-ups, spying, leaking, lobbying, political somersaults, words better said in private. At times Crossing the Line reads like a thriller. She names prominent names.
McGrath's style is mostly crisply forensic, but she concludes with passionate advocacy: "[The Department of Foreign Affairs and trade] has gone to extraordinary lengths to play down Australia's oil agenda in the Timor Sea, but the streets of Dili are graffitied with kangaroos carrying away buckets of oil."
[Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History.]