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East Timorese president-elect to push for new boundary with Australia

07:37 UTC+8 May 11, 2017 | Steven Schubert

East Timor's relationship with Australia is too important to dramatically change under its new leader, according to former President Jose Ramos-Horta.

However, he also said President-elect Francisco Guterres, also known as "Lu-Olo", will renew his country's push for a maritime boundary halfway between Timor and Australia

Australia and East Timor are currently renegotiating their boundary, after a treaty was torn up when it emerged Australian spy agencies had bugged Timorese offices during the negotiations.

That now-defunct treaty put 80 per cent of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, worth an estimated $40 billion, in Australia's territory.

Mr Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate who was president from 2007 to 2012, said he expected President-elect Guterres to maintain East Timor's push for equidistant boundary, which would put Great Sunrise entirely in East Timor's territory.

Energy security has become a big political issue in Australia in recent months, with a potential gas shortage looming in parts of the country.

But East Timor is a small country working to diversify its economy 17 years after it gained independence following a bloody 25-year struggle against Indonesia following the 1975 departure of the Portuguese, who had colonised the island.

In an interview ahead of a public speaking engagement in Darwin on Thursday, Mr Ramos-Horta said once the boundary was agreed to there would be opportunities for the two countries to work together to exploit the energy reserves.

"Australia's the closest country [to East Timor], it would make sense for us to engage with Australia also on energy security by jointly benefiting from exploration, commercialisation of resource in the joint Timor Sea," he said.

He added that his country also wanted Australia's help in maritime security issues such as people smuggling and illegal fishing.

Australian relationship 'too important' to change

President-elect Guterres was the first person to be elected president while a member of a political party in March.

He is also the president of Fretilin, the party which began as a revolutionary independence group.

All former presidents elected in East Timor have resigned from political parties before running for office.

Mr Guterres will be sworn into office on May 20.

Mr Ramos-Horta said East Timor's relationship with Australia would not change under Mr Guterres.

"The relations with Australia are far too important to expect any significant changes from a new president, a new government," he said.

"Relations are very important and very good, we have excellent cooperation at every level.

"If anything, President Lu-Olo, will be more active in cultivating relations in Australia."

East Timor won't support Chinese land claims

Mr Ramos-Horta told Lateline last week that the dispute with Australia over the maritime boundary and gas resources risked pushing East Timor closer to China diplomatically.

China has built Dili's presidential palace, and buildings for East Timor's foreign affairs department and defence department as gifts to the Timorese people.

But he said his country's relations with China would stop short of supporting their controversial land claims in the South China Sea.

"Australia has greater relations with China than us," he said.

"Australia sells anything it can think of to China, it doesn't sell more only because China cannot buy more.

"China has built for us only three buildings, none of which are equivalent to any modern building you have here in Darwin."

Too early to tell what Trump will be like

Before the US election Mr Ramos-Horta warned US President Donald Trump would be a threat to the security of the world if he became president.

But the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said it was too early to tell what sort of president Mr Trump would be.

Mr Ramos-Horta said Mr Trump is a pragmatist and global relationships will change quickly under his leadership.

"Of course Donald Trump is absolutely completely new, very different, from any conventional traditional American president as we know," he said.

"[He's] unpredictable, [but if] everything stabilises and settles in the next six months, one year, maybe that will be the indication of the next three years."

José Ramos-Horta will speak at a joint event of the Darwin Press Club and Charles Darwin University's School of Law at the Railway Club at 7pm on Thursday night.


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