COVER STORY: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Red Star over East Timor
, March 31, 2007
China is positioning itself to become a key long-term player in East Timor's political, economic and perhaps even military affairs, according to an Australian academic who specialises in researching Chinese foreign policy. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.International affairs expert and Chinese linguist, Kate Reid-Smith, of the Northern Territory's Charles Darwin University, says the budding Sino-East Timorese relationship has the potential to seriously undermine Indonesia's and Australia's spheres of influence.
"East Timor is geographically located within a vast Indonesian maritime expanse and Indonesia remains of enduring strategic significance to Australia," she says.
"Any disruption to sea routes keeping Indonesia relatively intact could pose a strategic threat to Australia's security.
"In light of what some Australian analysts see as China's evolving maritime hegemonic regional strategy - principally its Jinhai
strategies, which the Chinese have left undefined - this is further compounded by the depth of China's increasing investments in Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia and its off-shore islands, and maritime penetration towards Torres Strait."Burgeoning Chinese interest
Reid-Smith says that Jinhai
refers to China's in-shore or coastal waters.
"In this context, it alludes to China's shift away from what was essentially a 'brown water' or coastal in-shore focus to a wider off-shore streamlining of China's various maritime industries like off-shore fisheries and container-shipping facilities in Panama as well as exportation of Chinese maritime labour to distant spheres of burgeoning Chinese interest," she says.Lanhai,
on the other hand, refers to the maritime strategic concept of "blue water" or distant maritime involvement. What this means is that China, emulating the United States, modernises and expands its naval resources and deploys them around the globe to protect its overseas assets.
She adds: "It also implies a capability to sustain longer-term deployments and/or operations far removed from China such as its People's Liberation Army/Navy's world tours that began in 2000."
Reid-Smith says both terms remained undefined because most of what is written about China's intentions is by American and other Western think tanks - i.e., the Rand Corporation, military colleges, and geo-strategic and geopolitical specialists. China's defence and budgetary spending - the details of which China never fully discloses - are thus seen from a predominantly Western perspective.
"It has only been in the past year or so that China's international relations on these subjects have been gradually disclosed to the international public," she says.
"No one in the West knows too much about any of this - it is nearly always Western-forecast battle scenarios, based on Western-stylised international relations and conventional warfare notions, not from the Chinese themselves.
|Nearing completion: East Timor's|
Ministry for Foreign Affairs
building - a gift from
"The sooner Canberra comes to grips with its post-Cold War geopolitical role in the region, with a timely revisitation of all regional foreign policies, the better equipped it will be to engage in any future strategic modifications."
East Timor's largest construction project is being undertaken by China in the capital, Dili, a building that is to house its foreign ministry and is due for completion in September.
However, it is the first of three such buildings resulting from China's "charm offensive". The other two are a presidential palace and the Chinese embassy.
Reid-Smith says the Australian Government must come to terms with the fact that there are no longer any certainties about non-Western regional nations behaving in traditional or Western-style ways.
Australia, she warns, should note how China has already broken its own diplomatic tenets of non-interference by having sent peacekeepers to East Timor.
China is now redefining and expanding its interests, in part because it is increasingly dependent upon overseas resources that passed through "choke points" in South-East Asian waters.
"There's little doubt East Timor's valuable maritime geographical location provides China with potentially more maritime-related strategies," Reid-Smith says.
"However, the degree to which East Timor might depend on China is limited by the fact that it is only one of many resource-rich but infrastructure-poor nation-states struggling for independence and self-sufficiency."
Reid-Smith says it is noteworthy that under the banner of mutually advantageous diplomacy China has previously championed Namibia's independence struggle from South Africa.
And today China's only off-shore space tracking, telemetry and command facility remains within Namibia's coastal town of Swakopmund, adjacent to Namibia's only deepwater port of Walvis Bay.
"When the tiny Pacific micro-nation Kiribati struggled to come to terms with the decimation of the phosphate mining industry, China was at the forefront of aid and development policies," she says.
"And Chinese aid in fisheries continues in other smaller maritime micro-nations such as Fiji, the Marshall and Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea."
She describes how China has been financing large-scale harbour and port and coastal developments stretching from Pakistan's deep-water cargo port of Gwadar to Chittagong in Bangladesh, to peninsula South-East Asia, including Myanmar and Cambodia, and across the Pacific to the Panama Canal where it is funding a hub container facility.
The indications are therefore that China is viewing more than East Timor's off-shore gas reserves as a key South-East Asian prize.
"All that glitters in East Timor may be more than merely black gold - it may well prove to be the pearl in China's 21st century geo-strategic South-East Asian crown," Reid-Smith says.China first
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that in 2002 China was the first country to formally recognise independent East Timor. Last year, both countries gained ASEAN observer status as well as membership of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), a multi-national forum for mutual friendship among nations where Portuguese is an official language.
Reid-Smith says this Sino-Portuguese connection, although seemingly a low priority in international relations, demonstrates a significant change in China's understanding of how it might benefit from enhancing relationships with Portuguese-speaking nations.
Interestingly, China withdrew Hong Kong from the English-speaking Commonwealth after Hong Kong's reunification with the mainland, but chose to support neighbouring Macau's accession to the CPLP.
"With most international and regional attention focused on East Timor's future prospects, amid reconstruction and mutually profitable oil and gas concerns, it has seemed China, like the rest of the world, has merely jumped on East Timor's geopolitical hydrocarbon bandwagon," she adds.
"However, hydrocarbon-rich East Timor lies within maritime South-East Asia, which is dominated by sea lanes of communication and vital maritime networks.
"And as East Timor is at the southern-most tip of this vast expanse, it makes perfect sense that China should be more than acutely aware of this tiny nation's geo-strategic opportunity as a Chinese maritime scoping platform.
"East Timor straddles vital trade and sea transit routes between India and China, and even the most direct oil route linking the Middle East and Sydney.
"As well as possessing its own vast off-shore hydrocarbon potential, East Timor is also surrounded by a virtual Indonesian mineral feast made up of resource-rich islands and waters.
"East Timor's waterways are essentially coastal waters.
"China, highly experienced as it is in coastal operations, could also offer soft loans in terms of naval acquisitions, including small patrol craft, land-based artillery and missiles, or amphibious warfare technologies, in exchange for oil concessions - similar to other Chinese regional aid packages.
"Chinese warships could legitimately be used as anti-piracy or counter-terrorism escorts, protecting Chinese or East Timor shipping or fishing interests.
"Another alternative operational quest is East Timor's equatorial proximity.
"China has also been eager to push ahead with its Shenzhou
space program, expanding its role in the commercial and satellite communications areas."
East Timor could greatly profit from this should it lease land for Chinese facilities, says Reid-Smith. China would then set up supporting infrastructures for its program.
East Timor's geographical location would be of immeasurable benefit to China, providing it with its only static presence south of the equator in South-East Asia.
"In a region where lines of communication are at best ad hoc
, a satellite-connected network of assets, ranging from electronic communication relays to radar units, would provide domestic advantages including advanced ship-to-shore communications, navigational safety, or meteorological studies.
"As nations redefine new post-Cold War areas of interest, especially micro-nations that are increasingly dependent upon seaborne oil resources that overlap key choke points in South-East Asian waters, there remains little doubt that East Timor's valuable maritime geography creates new strategic maritime vacuums."
Time will tell if East Timor becomes China's newest South-East Asian satellite or tributary and if this "remarkable philanthropic shift in China's involvement" to Australia's near north becomes a stepping-stone for something even more sinister.