Chinese base plan causes headache

EAST Timorese plans to build a naval base for Chinese-made patrol boats has raised concerns about Beijing's military influence in a region traditionally regarded by Canberra as its own.

Plans to develop a navy base at Betano in the south were announced last week by East Timorese Secretary of State for Defence Julio Pinto.

The timing coincides with growing unease in the Gusmao government over Australian peacekeeping troops.

Mr Pinto said Betano would be an important base to refuel the new craft during coastal patrols between western Viqueque and Betano.

Last year, the Gusmao government controversially agreed to buy two 1960s-era 43m armed Shanghai Class patrol boats for $25 million, a deal that apparently included construction of a landing dock on the south coast.

While no offer has been made to give China military access, the base underscores growing military links between Beijing and Dili.

Those ties are consistent with Dili's desire to assert more independence from Canberra and Jakarta, said Hugh White, head of Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

"What Australians fail to recognise -- notwithstanding our role 10 years ago -- for East Timor, living next door to a country like Australia is somewhat uncomfortable," Professor White told The Australian.

"Seeking to balance Australia's role, and for that matter Indonesia's role, in their international position is a perfectly understandable thing to do."

While there was nothing illegitimate about China taking an interest in East Timor, Australian governments have always been "very neuralgic" at the idea of external powers gaining military bases in the inner arc of islands to our north, he said.

"That neuralgia is very clearly expressed in the 2009 (defence) white paper so that if China acquires military basing access to East Timor, that would raise some important issues for the (Rudd) government," Professor White said.

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