Dili acts to ease concerns of drift towards China
AUSTRALIA remains East Timor's key strategic partner, says its Foreign Minister, Zacarias da Costa.
Mr da Costa said Australian fears of increasing Chinese influence on his tiny nation are "groundless".
"Our relations with Australia, with the US, in our security sector are improving and strengthening and I don't see (why) the statement of the Prime Minister should cause a lot of concern in Australia," he said.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao fanned renewed concern in Australian strategic circles with a speech last week praising China's no-strings assistance, while welcoming the gift of a new $9 million defence headquarters and raising the possibility of Chinese training for East Timor's military.
But Mr da Costa, who has played a leading role in recent negotiations with Beijing, told The Australian that his government's interest in furthering Chinese relations was for trade and investment.
"It's purely trade and I don't think even Beijing is looking at a strategic military presence in East Timor, as many people are trying to say in Australia at the moment," he said.
The Foreign Minister also said Dili stood ready to resume discussions with any new government in Canberra about Julia Gillard's proposal for a regional refugee processing centre. But he made clear the process would be lengthy and faced big obstacles on the East Timor side.
Mr da Costa, however, expressed confidence that Australia-East Timor ties would be fundamentally unaffected whichever major party formed a government.
He said Tony Abbott and Ms Gillard were genuinely committed to the relationship.
And he justified as "constructive engagement" East Timor's increasing diplomatic interchanges with the Burmese regime and Frank Bainimarama's military-backed government in Fiji, which Australia seeks to isolate diplomatically.
The Dili government was intent on furthering relations not just with Australia and Indonesia but with ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea and the Pacific island nations.
Mr da Costa, who was hosted by Burma's Foreign Minister, Nyan Win, this month and will make a return visit to promote commercial relations, said his government did not shy from raising human rights and political freedom issues with the Burmese regime and Fiji.
But it remained committed to East Timor's primary security relationships.
"We are clear that in terms of security and defence co-operation we will privilege our co-operation with Australia, with the US, with Portugal (East Timor's former colonist) and Japan," Mr da Costa said. "I would just say to those who are concerned with our growing co-operation with China that it's groundless."
Even in trade, he said, Chinese influence was not comparable to Australia's.
China's trade with East Timor in 2008 was officially worth $10.4m (in current terms), Australia's was $37.5m, Singapore's $54.3m and former military occupier Indonesia's was $102.1m.
Recent Chinese assistance in the form of building new official premises, including Mr da Costa's Foreign Ministry building and the planned defence headquarters, exceeds $US21m ($23.4m) but there is also extensive civil service training and technical development. Australia is providing about $100m assistance to East Timor this year.
On Australia's proposal for an East Timor regional refugee processing centre, Mr da Costa said East Timor wanted a comprehensive humanitarian-focused solution.
source: THE AUSTRALIAN