By: Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin, The Australian - 21/05/2012.
The 10th anniversary of East Timor's independence was marked yesterday. As it is still a fledging nation wrestling with the challenge of creating a viable state, Australia must work with East Timor to advance our common interests, not just to ensure the state's survival but to strengthen regional security.
Maritime issues are an obvious pathway for fostering good relations. Common interests in the maritime region include security, resource development and marine environmental protection, all areas of Australian expertise.
Australia has a vital interest in maintaining good order in the Timor Sea. It is important the weak domestic law-enforcement capabilities in East Timor do not create a situation where the country becomes a transit point for people-smuggling and illegal trafficking into Australia, as well as a support base for illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in our seas.
The southern waters of East Timor provide a safe haven for mother ships supporting illegal fishing in our offshore zone. Sri Lankan refugees have tried to enter Australia illegally from East Timor. And there have been attempts at smuggling drugs from the country to Australia.
We have an interest in the security of shipping passing near East Timor: the Ombai and Wetar Straits are used extensively by shipping bound to and from northwest Australian ports and the Torres Strait.
It's not yet clear after Fukushima what place nuclear power will have in Japan's long-term energy plans. But there is likely to be a major increase in liquid natural gas exports to Japan. This will add to the strategic importance of the joint-development zone in the Timor Sea, where several gas projects are either under way or being considered.
We should do more to help East Timor manage its ocean affairs. Yet AusAID's Australia-Timor-Leste Country Strategy 2009-14 makes no mention of any maritime requirements.
Co-operation on maritime surveillance depends on information-sharing between adjacent countries. But such institutional arrangements between Australia, Indonesia and East Timor are lacking at both national and regional levels.
The 2006 treaty between Australia and East Timor on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea provides for a joint maritime commission, but it has never met. The commission should discuss the whole range of maritime issues that are shared concerns of both countries, such as customs, illegal people movement and illegal fishing.
East Timor is putting a lot of faith in a proposed national maritime authority, based on the Portuguese model. But it is not clear how the authority would relate to existing organisations.
These are matters for Dili to resolve, but Canberra should stand ready to offer assistance when requested.
Australia should also revisit the issue of maritime enforcement capability. The East Timor defence force commander, Major-General Lere Anan Timur, has recently asked his government to urgently buy a new boat to control illegal fishing off the south coast.
East Timor's navy and marine police will soon have between them around 10 vessels, none with the capability of conducting operations in the area where illegal activity is taking place. East Timor's national fleet will soon be about half the numbers of the Australian-donated Pacific patrol boat fleet of 22 vessels given to 12 Pacific island states.
Australia has offered a number of maritime security initiatives to East Timor in recent years. Not all were accepted: the East Timorese have at times wanted to demonstrate they are not locked into "big brother". For better or worse, they have chosen to go their own way with acquiring naval capabilities.
But Australia should now be doing all we can to develop the operational and organisational structures that East Timor needs to develop a meaningful and sustainable maritime security force for the longer term.
Such a force would not just be in Australia's interests but would also be an important contribution to regional maritime security.
After 10 years of independence, assistance with building East Timor's maritime capability is a key area where we should still be contributing to the country's national security.
And it would be a good fit with Foreign Minister Bob Carr's recent comments that he wants to make sustainable ocean management a key objective of Australian foreign policy.
Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin are the co-authors of Sea Change: Advancing Australia's Ocean Interests, Australian Strategic Policy