Can David overcome Goliath?


Can David overcome Goliath? A race to riches as underdog Timor disputes the unfair and subjugating rule of an imperialistic Australia



Under the sea between Australia’s northern shores and the half island of East Timor lies a treasure trove of natural resources specifically oil and gas minerals. Revenues from these two oil and gas fields are highly lucrative for both Australia and Timor-Leste to capitalize upon. For the nascent country of East Timor, the potential tax revenues from the exploitation of these deposits could significantly reduce the infliction’s of poverty that heavily plague the state. On the flip-side, the Australian government potentially risks losing the wealth buried beneath the sea floor if East Timor was to gain access.

Australia has maintained and benefited from relations with East Timor throughout its tenure as an independent state. Following Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of Timor-Leste, Australia and Indonesia signed the Timor Gap Treaty (1989). By this stage, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) had come into effect, establishing the median line principle as the basis for setting maritime jurisdictions between countries less than 400 nautical miles apart. However, in a highly favorable deal to Australia, the Timor Gap Treaty divided the resources between the 1972 boundary and the median line equally. The treaty proved extremely profitable, with Australia netting more than $2 billion in government taxes from the Laminaria-Corallina fields alone. Today, these fields are now largely exhausted.

In the late 1990s, the growing surge for independence in Timor-Leste threw all previous agreements between Indonesia and Australia into doubt. In anticipation, Australia withdrew its recognition of the maritime boundary dispute jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, just two months prior to Timor-Leste’s declaration of independence. At the time, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer asserted that it was Australia’s ‘strong view is that any maritime boundary dispute is best settled by negotiation rather than litigation.’ Timor Sea agreements between the newly independent Timor-Leste and Australia were then negotiated directly between the two countries. This was done, without reference to UNCLOS. The resulting Timor Sea Treaty (signed in 2002, ratified in 2003) established that fields in the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA), such as Bayu Undan, are shared via a 90% (Timor-Leste) and 10% (Australia) split, an improvement on the 50/50 split under Indonesian rule.

During the negotiations, Timor-Leste repeatedly tried to raise the issue of permanent maritime boundaries along a median line. This prompted a well-documented outburst from Downer: “We don’t have to exploit the resources (in Bayu Undan). They can stay there for 20, 40, 50 years…. We are very tough. We will not care if you give information to the media. Let me give you a tutorial in politics- not a chance “This illustrates Australia’s lack of diplomatic willingness to develop stronger ties with one of its regional partners.

Furthermore, the additional scopes of issues pertaining to the dispute provoke the need for exercising international sea legislation. Agreements stated in the Timor Sea Treaty (linked with the Sunrise-International Unification Agreement) conflicted with the fact less than 20% of the Greater Sunrise fell within the JDPA. The rest was assigned to Australia. Australia delayed ratifying the Timor Sea Treaty until the agreement on the Sunrise Agreement therefore,meaning that the Lack of cash flow from this project was detrimental to Timor’s economic climate at this time.

In retrospect, Downer wrote an opinion piece in 2014 commenting on relations with Timor. Downer promoted Australia as a responsible international citizen, defending the position on the Sea Treaty, claiming “Whenever a foreigner criticises us, it’s always our fault”. He described CMATS as an act of charitable goodwill by the Australia government: “In 2006 we struck a deal with the Timorese: we’d give them 50 percent of the revenue (of Greater Sunrise) because they were poor and we were rich….We didn’t really need the money to the extent that they did.”

To no astonishment, the current East-Timor government is standing up to Australia’s position by informing Australia that it will trigger conciliation proceedings under the UNCLOS to ascertain where the merits of a new boundary and where it should lie. East Timor submitted that a permanent boundary determined under international law would see the vast bulk of an estimated $53 billion in oil and gas revenues in the Timor Sea fall within its territory. The prospects and ongoing refusal by Australia to negotiate a permanent boundary has weakened the Australian-Timor relationship. By conveying a sense that Australia is seeking to exploit its vulnerability, it is clear East-Timor has felt categorised as an economically weak nation state.

Australia’s diplomacy towards the Timor Sea dispute expresses a blatant disregard for the sovereignty of Timor-Leste and undermines credibility within international maritime law. By using the David and Goliath conflict as a metaphor, Australia cannot expect to be respected if its own behaviour is reprehensible. Such behaviour will continue to foster negative perceptions of Australia and assist the cause of large states bullying weaker states. Supporting Timor-Leste’s efforts for sovereignty in combination with our established foreign aid assistance can only serve to benefit Australia and the future stability of the region.


Laurelle Neugebauer is a final year International Relations student and has recently returned from the Harvard Model United Nations conference in Rome. Her hobbies include baking and any form of outdoor exercise.


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