Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: October 14, 2016
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Business Trends

While all eyes have been on China’s grandstanding over its nine-dashed line in the South China Sea, there is another bitter territorial dispute going on in Southeast Asia. Between minnow East Timor and giant Australia, the argument centres on the sea boundary between the two countries.

Under the UNCLOS, a country’s maritime exclusive economic zone extends to 200 nautical miles from its land boundary. This does differ, depending on specific resolutions between two or more countries, but is generally accepted, and indeed Indonesia and Australia came to an agreement in 1972 over their seabed boundaries where the median line was some 50 nautical miles closer to the island of Timor. With Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor in 1975, negotiations began between Indonesia and Australia over the boundary in the ‘Timor Gap’, which was left out of the 1972 agreement as East Timor was under Portuguese control then. At stake was significant hydrocarbon, with a 1989 decision to establish a joint cooperation area instituted. With the 2002 independence of East Timor, that all became moot.

During the early days of independence, East Timor was reliant on hydrocarbons to support its fragile economy. It entered into a Joint Petroleum Development Area with Australia that encompassed most of the Timor Gap. The giant Bayu Undan field is here, as is the Elang-Kakatua field.  The Greater Sunrise field is only marginally in the JPDA area, with the rest falling into a grey area: under the 1972 Indonesia-Australia line, it would be Australian territory, but under the UNCLOS EEZ rule, it falls within East Timor territory.

East Timor wants to solve the border dispute as soon as possible. Australia does not, until at least 2056, when (conveniently) the Greater Sunrise reserves will be depleted, adopting the JPDA border in the interim, placing Greater Sunrise and at least US$40 billion worth of oil and gas under its control. Consistent delays on the part of Australia over bilateral discussions forced East Timor to take the case to the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague. Australia wanted to have the claim thrown out, claiming that the court has no jurisdiction (an excuse China has also used in its South China Sea case), but the court has now ruled that the claim is valid and will move ahead with hearing the case. 

While maritime border cases can be amicable – see Malaysia and Singapore’s dispute over Pedra Branca – this case is coloured by some unsavoury moves on the part of Australia. Just two months prior to East Timor’s formal independence, Australia secretly withdrew from the UNCLOS maritime boundary dispute resolution procedures, so it could not be compelled into a legally binding arbitration over the new border. Then it was revealed in 2012 that Australia secret service agents posing as aid workers bugged the East Timor government cabinet room to spy on internal proceedings. The revelations are claimed by East Timor to be a sign of ‘lack of good faith’ in negotiating the boundary, making Australia the first ever country to be hauled up to the court for ‘compulsory conciliation’. At stake is not just the border, but the JPDA as well. The court could very well rule, given the facts of the case, that the JPDA should be dissolved which would put the whole Timor Gap under East Timor (or even Australian) control. In that sea is a lot of wealth, and both sides want it badly. Badly enough that Australia may have indulged in espionage to retain it.

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