Australia–East Timor relations

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Australia–East Timor relations
Map indicating locations of East Timor and Australia



Australia–East Timor relations refer to the bilateral relations between Australia and East Timor. Both countries are near neighbors with close political and trade ties. East Timor, the youngest and one of the poorest countries in Asia, lies about 610 kilometres northwest of the Australian city of Darwin and Australia has played a prominent role in the young republic's history.

Australia has led international support for East Timor during its first 10 years of independence, not only as the largest bilateral donor of development assistance, but also by providing a leadership role to ensure security and stability in the country.

Australia led the military force that helped stabilize the country after it gained independence from Indonesia in 1999 and has been a major source of aid since. In recent years, relations between both countries have deteriorated as a result of the Australia–East Timor spying scandal.


Australian soldiers participating in UN peacekeeping operations in East Timor

Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told Indonesia that his government would not oppose an annexation of East Timor in 1975,[1] a decision that quickly proved controversial at home. In October 1975, Indonesian troops poured across East Timor's border with Indonesian West Timor at the town of Balibo. Among those killed by the advancing Indonesian troops were five Australia-based journalists, who came to be known as the Balibo Five. Many in Australia and elsewhere[2] were convinced that the murder of the unarmed reporters was intentional.[3] Australian support was criticised at times. Australia and Indonesia concluded several contracts about the boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia during occupation time, which is causing several quarrels between independent Timor-Leste and its bigger neighbour.[4]

Timor-Leste reachieved their independence on 20 May 2002, after 24 years occupation by Indonesia and three years of UN administration. The process of Timor-Leste independence began by a referendum arranged by United Nations, Indonesia and the former colonial power Portugal to choose between autonomy within Indonesia or independence. Eventually the Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly for independence.[5] Australia led the INTERFET during the following 1999 East Timorese crisis to stop Indonesian militias and army attacking the East Timorese civilians, and to establish the UN administration.

Since 2002, Timor-Leste had begun as the first new sovereign nation of the 21st century. Australia's involvement with East Timor has deepened since independence, especially after the internal conflict in 2006 and the sending of Australian peacekeepers.

Embassy and consulates[edit]

Australia's embassy in Timor-Leste is located in Dili, and Timor-Leste maintains an embassy in Canberra.[6]

East Timor also has consulates in every state of Australia; most of these positions are filled by honorary consuls.[7]

High-level visits[edit]

There have been numerous high-level visits between Australia and Timor-Leste:

  • August 2013 – then Minister for International Development Melissa Parke visited Timor-Leste
  • July 2013 – President Taur Matan Ruak visited Australia
  • February 2013 – then Minister for Energy and Resources and Minister for Tourism Martin Ferguson visited Timor-Leste
  • December 2012 – then Foreign Minister Bob Carr visited Timor-Leste
  • May 2012 – then Governor General Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO and then Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Warren Snowdon, visited Timor-Leste to attend Timor-Leste's 10th anniversary of independence celebrations
  • February 2012 – Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão visited Australia
  • July 2011 – then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd visited Timor-Leste
  • April 2011 – then Defence Minister Stephen Smith visited Timor-Leste
  • December 2010 – then Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor visited Timor-Leste
  • October 2010 – Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen visited Timor-Leste
  • June 2010 – then President Ramos-Horta visited Australia accompanied by three Ministers


Australian Defence Force units arrived in East Timor in 1999 to quell the rioting, disorder and low-level fighting created by the Indonesian military's scorched earth campaign as it withdrew from its former possession in 1999.[8] Australia led the INTERFET operation in 1999, and provided substantial forces to the subsequent United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor and its successor operations. Australia also landed combat troops in the country in 2006 to quell ethnic fighting that involved East Timorese police and soldiers.[9] The last Australian peacekeeping forces left Timor-Leste in December 2012.

The Timor Leste Defence Force has received assistance with training, advice and other forms of support from the Australian Defence Force since 2001 as part of Australia's Defence Cooperation Program. As of 2015, 25 Australian military personnel were stationed in East Timor to deliver this assistance.[10][11]

Economic and trade relations[edit]

In 2013-2014, Timor-Leste ranked as Australia’s 118th largest goods trading partner, with total merchandise trade valued at $24 Million[12] Australia and Timor-Leste had been on an international cooperation in agriculture with Timor-Leste’s largest agriculture export is Coffee. Other potential agricultural crops are vanilla, spices, candle-nut and palm oil.[12]

Monthly value of Australian merchandise exports to East Timor (A$ millions) since 2002

Oil disputes[edit]

Demonstration against Australia Dec. 2013
Over ten thousand Timorese demonstrated in 2016 at the Australian embassy in Dili

Large oil and gas reserves lie in the sea between the two countries in an area known as the Timor Gap. Territorial disputes over control of this resource, which some geologists estimate could pump over $10 billion of oil and gas, have coloured diplomacy with East Timor, both when it was an Indonesian possession and since. Australia broke with many of its allies and recognised Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1976 in what was widely seen by analysts at the time as a quid pro quo for a treaty favourable to Australia involving oil and gas exploration in the area. Since East Timor's independence, disputes over the split Dili would receive when the resource was finally developed have been an occasional strain on otherwise close relations.[13]

In the aftermath of the Australia–East Timor spying scandal in 2013, East Timor launched a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to pull out of the gas treaty it had signed with Australia accusing the latter of having its intelligence agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), bug the East Timorese cabinet room in Dili in 2004.[14]

On 3 March 2014, in response to an East Timorese request for an indication of provisional measures, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Australia not to interfere with communications between East Timor and its legal advisors in the arbitral proceedings and related matters.[15] New negotiations about the maritime boundary are planned in the end of 2014.[16]

Timor Sea maritime arrangements[edit]

Graffiti on the wall of Australian embassy in Dili (2014)

Currently Australia and Timor-Leste have three agreements regarding maritime arrangements with Timor Sea. The Timor Sea Treaty between The government of East Timor and the government of Australia which took place in Dili, 20 May 2001, and came into force on 2 April 2003. This treaty is for a joint exploration, development and exploitation of the petroleum resources from the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA).[citation needed]

Treaty on a Maritime Arrangement in the Timor Sea between Australia and the democratic arrangement in the Timor Sea was signed in Sydney on 12 January 2006 and came into force on 23 February 2007. This treaty provides for an equally shared revenue derived from the production of petroleum.[17]

International Unitization Agreement for Greater Sunrise is an agreement between Australia and the Government of Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste relating to the unitization of the sunrise troubadour fields. This agreement regarding the exploitation of the Sunrise and Troubadour petroleum and gas fields in Timor Sea that known as the Greater Sunrise.


Australia has been the biggest development partner with Timor-Leste, where Timor-Leste is one of the poorest nations, ranking 147 out of 187 countries in the UN Human Development Index.[18] In the decade that ended in 2010, Australia was scheduled to have provided around A$760 million in direct aid to East Timor.[19] In 2010, East Timor President José Ramos-Horta said that 10 years of foreign aid, including from Australia, had "had no impact on transforming the lives of the people" [19] In 2013–14, the estimated annual aid budget from Australia to East Timor was A$106 million.[20]

Both countries shared the Timor-Leste – Australia Strategic Planning Agreement for Development (2011), where both countries work together, in close cooperation, to improve the lives of all citizens of Timor-Leste and in so doing strengthen the bonds between our two peoples and countries.[18] This agreement is based on priorities taken directly from Timor-Leste’s Strategic development Plan 2012 – 2030, include on economic development, infrastructure development, social capital, and institution framework[21]


  1. ^ "Whitlam reveals his East Timor policy". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 6 December 1999. Archived from the original on 27 November 2014. 
  2. ^ "IPI seeks fresh investigation into 1975 and 1999 cases of killed journalists - IFEX". 
  3. ^ Nurbati, Ati (9 February 2001). "Balibo killings: Beginnings of impunity?". The Jakarta Post. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. 
  4. ^ "Timor Sea Justice Campaign - Introduction". 
  5. ^ Frédéric Durand: Three centuries of violence and struggle in East Timor (1726-2008), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence
  6. ^ "Timor-Leste". Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  7. ^ "Timor-Leste". Foreign embassies and consulates in Australia. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  8. ^ Scorched Earth, Far Eastern Economic Review, John McBeth and Dan Murphy, 16 September 1999, pp. 10–14
  9. ^ Australian forces intervene to halt fighting in East Timor | New York Times, Jane Perlez, 26 May 2006
  10. ^ "Defence Cooperation Program (DCP): Timor-Leste". Nautilus Institute. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  11. ^ McPhedran, Ian (25 June 2015). "Australian troops in East Timor unable to travel more than an hour by road from Dili". News Corp Australia. Archived from the original on 13 December 2015. Retrieved 2 May 2016. 
  12. ^ a b Department of Foreign Affair and Trade – Australia Government
  13. ^ Marks, Kathy (3 June 2004). "Australia casts a shadow over East Timor's future". The Independent. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. 
  14. ^ Australian Broadcasting Corporation (5 December 2013). "East Timor spying case: PM Xanana Gusmao calls for Australia to explain itself over ASIO raids". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 12 April 2016. 
  15. ^ Questions relating to the Seizure and Detention of Certain Documents and Data (Timor-Leste v. Australia), Request for the Indication of Provisional Measures, 3 March 2014, para 55, part 3 of the operative part.[1]
  16. ^ Allard, Tom (28 October 2014). "Australia and East Timor restart talks on maritime boundary". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 23 April 2015. 
  18. ^ a b Department of Foreign Affair and Trade – Australia Government "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 12 October 2014. Retrieved 2014-10-08. 
  19. ^ a b Oakes, Dan (24 June 2010). "New aid strategy to help East Timor". The Age. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 27 August 2015. 
  20. ^ Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Timor-Leste:Overview of Australia’s aid program to Timor-Leste, Australian Government, archived from the original on 10 January 2015 
  21. ^ Timor-Leste - Australia Strategic Planning Agreement