Frenemies in the Timor Sea

East Timor and Australia are friends again. But a grudging friendship for mutual benefit that replaces the outright animosity that existed before. And like most fallouts, it revolved around money.

In 1974, the collective Greater Sunrise fields were discovered in the Timor Gap, an area of the Timor Sea that lies between Australia and then-Portuguese colony East Timor. With estimated reserves of some 5.13 tcf of natural gas – equivalent to about a third of current global LNG consumption – it is a jewel that is begging to be developed. However, Indonesia invaded East Timor – which had only enjoyed independence from Portugal for 9 days – and administered it until 2002; among the many things it conducted on ‘behalf' of the Timorese was to agree on a maritime border with Australia.

As it finally became independent in 2002, the new East Timor (Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) needed new friends. Indonesia wasn't the best option, so it turned to Australia, its largest international supporter. But the riches in the Timor Sea proved too vast. Although the young and naïve East Timor did agree on treaties governing joint development of the Timor Gap and Greater Sunrise, it also asserted that it did not recognise the maritime border agreed by Indonesia with Australia. Rather, it argued for a border that is equi-distance between East Timor and Australia; a move that would put Greater Sunrise within Timorese waters. Alarmed by this, Australia's government sanctioned placing bugs within the Timorese cabinets to monitor discussions. And just as Greater Sunrise was on the verge of finally being developed, the scandal broke… followed by years of argument and accusations.

That has been put aside for now. East Timor dropped its suit against Australia at the Permanent Court of Arbitration last year, and last week signed a new treaty that redraws their maritime boundary*. This formally ends the dispute over the border. It, however, does not set out terms of the actual field development, preferring to leave that up to the Greater Sunrise consortium of Woodside, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Osaka Gas – East Timor will receive at least 70% of Greater Sunrise revenues, up to 80% depending on where the gas is processed. The decision is particularly pertinent for East Timor, as its Bayu Undan field – the only major gas production field in operation – is set to be depleted by 2022. From friends to enemies to friends again, Australia has sought to re-assure all parties that no clandestine shenanigans were involved this time. 

*On 6 March 2018, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, and Timor-Leste's Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister for the Delimitation of Borders and the Agent in the Conciliation, His Excellency Mr Hermenegildo Pereira, signed the Treaty Between Australia and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste Establishing Their Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea [PDF 592 KB]. The treaty was signed in New York at the United Nations Headquarters in the presence of the United Nations Secretary-General and the Chair of the Conciliation Commission.

"Frenemy" (less commonly spelled "frienemy") is an oxymoron and a portmanteau of "friend" and "enemy" that refers to "a person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry" or "a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frenemy

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