East Timor could become the next Dubai or Singapore if Australian resources giant Woodside agreed to pipe gas there instead of Darwin for processing, the island nation’s President Jose Ramos-Horta said as he steps up pressure on Anthony Albanese to support the project.

Australia and East Timor also agreed to upgrade defence co-operation ties, particularly in maritime security and surveillance, during the president’s visit to Canberra, amid concern over China’s growing presence in the region.

Dr Ramos-Horta said the extent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were “unsustainable” and Beijing needed to tread carefully over Taiwan. But he also talked down the security threat Beijing posed because China’s economic rise had been built on stability.

“I don’t think that China intends to invade anyone,” Dr Ramos-Horta told the National Press Club.

“China has too many neighbours. Too many choke points. And to feed itself, it depends on the stability in the seas, freedom of navigation. It depends on the stability in the world.”

Dr Ramos-Horta took a thinly veiled swipe at Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare over his security pact with China, which has alarmed the Pacific, saying “any leader that is serious about being a leader, you have to be sensitive to your neighbours”.

As part of his visit to Australia, Dr Ramos-Horta is lobbying to kick-start development of the $US50 billion ($71 billion) Greater Sunrise gas project in the Timor Sea.

The East Timorese government, which owns the majority stake, wants the gas piped to its undeveloped southern coast 150 kilometres away, but joint venture partner Woodside argues a 450 kilometre-long pipeline to Darwin is the only commercially viable option. A major engineering challenge to pipe the gas to East Timor is the 3000-metre deep “Timor trench”.

Dr Ramos-Horta raised the project in talks with Mr Albanese on Wednesday, arguing it was in the best interests of both governments and the company’s shareholders for the gas to be piped to East Timor.

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