China declined to build security outpost in East Timor out of respect for Australian ‘sensitivities’: Ramos-Horta

East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta said China has intentionally declined offers to set up police and military infrastructure in the Southeast Asian nation out of respect for Australia’s “sensitivities”, after upgraded bilateral ties between the two sides sparked unease in Canberra.

Dili and Beijing signed a new comprehensive strategic partnership during a meeting between Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou last month.

The agreement largely covered cooperation in agriculture and infrastructure in East Timor, but the mention of defence exchanges in it prompted some Australian politicians to voice concerns about the pact.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao of East Timor in Hangzhou on September 23. Photo: Xinhua

Ramos-Horta dismissed such worries, saying he intended to obtain more Chinese aid for his country’s development projects and not pursue military cooperation with the economic giant.

The Nobel laureate added China was keen on developing defence infrastructure, including building a whole compound for the police force, but it steered clear of the plan to avoid eliciting an “overreaction” from Australia.

“I have to say, in credit to China, we could have had more Chinese support for instance in infrastructures to our defence forces, to our police force,” Ramos-Horta said on Monday.

“So, the Chinese are actually sensitive to the sensitivities of our neighbours. So, they are more respectful of Australia’s position than Australia is of the Chinese position.”

Ramos-Horta maintained that Canberra, which last month said it “respects Dili’s ability to make its own choices”, was aware that his administration had no inclination towards forming a security tie-up with China, public broadcaster ABC reported.

“The Australian government, those in government dealing with information day to day, who deal with us day to day, and Australian intelligence that normally, [in] their work, deal with us every day, they know well Timor’s position, so they are not worried about it,” he said.

East Timor says not seeking China military ties, Australia can ‘sleep at peace’

Australia’s wariness about China’s military ambitions in the Pacific has deepened since it sealed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year.

Ramos-Horta also expressed optimism about reviving the Greater Sunrise gas project, a joint venture between Australia’s Woodside Energy and East Timor, which had stalled after the Dili government insisted on piping gas to the island nation and not to its neighbour for processing.

“I don’t enter into details because this is up to Prime Minister Gusmao and Anthony Albanese, but we are going to find, very soon, early next year, a solution for the development of Greater Sunrise.”

East Timor previously suggested it would team up with a Chinese company if Australia failed to persuade Woodside to support its plan.

Australian Foreign Minster Penny Wong said last month involving Beijing in the energy development project could prove counterproductive. Photo: AP

Last month, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Canberra did not have a direct stake in the project and involving Beijing in it could prove counterproductive after Ramos-Horta revealed China was “very interested” in the energy development project.

“What I have said is that this [project] has been stuck for many years. I’ve said to the president and many others we need to unstick it. We need to see how a way through can be found,” Wong said.

In 2022, East Timor launched the Chinese-built Tibar deep water port to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

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