Singapore: New East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta wants Australia to back a major infrastructure drive in south-east Asia’s newest nation, saying it’s in the new government’s strategic interest to retain a “pro-Australia, pro-Western values” near neighbour.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the 72-year-old former independence activist made no apologies for fostering stronger ties with China, which has tagged East Timor as “an important Belt and Road partner country”.
His call for Australia to “invest serious money in support of infrastructure in Timor-Leste” shapes as a fresh foreign policy challenge for the incoming Albanese government, which assumes control a month after Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands.
“We need upgrading of our universities, we need to upgrade some rural roads, water and sanitation. We need an international-class hospital,” said Ramos-Horta, who was previously president between 2007 and 2012 and was prime minister before that.
“It’s not only a one-way street in terms of only benefiting Timor. Timor-Leste should be part of the wider Australian strategic interest, to see a pro-Australia, pro-Western values Timor-Leste on Australia’s doorstep. So it’s not philanthropy. It’s [in their] economic and strategic interests.”
Australia is East Timor’s leading development assistance partner, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with $105.7 million budgeted for 2022-23. It also supports East Timor’s police and armed forces and has been the main overseas player in the country’s COVID-19 recovery, gifting more than 1 million vaccine doses.
However, Ramos-Horta would like to see a deepening commitment including Timorese people being granted more work visas in Australia, help in upgrading the country’s vocational schools to Australian standards and for Australia and East Timor to join forces on maritime security to help prevent “predatory foreign fishing companies robbing resources in the Timor Sea”.
It comes as China has spruiked its links with East Timor. Its ambassador, Xiao Jianguo, in March talked up the engagement of state-owned Chinese companies in projects such as an expressway, a container terminal and the national electricity grid, and its donation of 200,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots.
As he was sworn in on Friday, the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ramos-Horta spoke of a desire to broaden links with Beijing in areas such as trade, renewable energy, digitisation, artificial intelligence and urban and rural infrastructure.