Timor-Leste’s president has hit back at criticism of a new partnership between his country and China, which includes plans to enhance military engagement, accusing detractors of “imagining Chinese ghosts”.
José Ramos-Horta, serving as president for the second time, told the Guardian that both Timor-Leste and China were “confused” by the concerns raised over the upgrading of ties between the two countries to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” announced last week.
Australia’s relationship with China is also designated a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, but Timor-Leste’s had been linked to concerns from Canberra and allies including the US over China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Timor-Leste’s leadership has rejected such concerns, instead seeking to have close ties with all global powers in an effort to secure its future. Ramos-Horta criticised the coverage and questioned why there was concern over the China relationship when Dili partnered and cooperated militarily with multiple nations.
“Imagined Chinese ghosts in Australia mainstream and rightwing media,” Ramos Horta said over WhatsApp. “Should we wear badges proclaiming our enduring love for Australia? But even then, would the over jealous Australian media stop accusing us, poor Timor-Leste, of being ungrateful [and] pro-China?”
The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, announced the relationship upgrade after a meeting on the sidelines of the Asian Games in Hangzhou last week.
A joint statement from the two leaders largely outlined plans for partnering on trade, infrastructure and improving food sufficiency and livelihoods in Timor-Leste. However it also included plans to “enhance high-level military exchanges, strengthen cooperation in areas such as personnel training, equipment technology, the conduct of joint exercises and training”.
The language sparked concerns that the two nations were discussing a potential arrangement similar to the security pact signed between China and Solomon Islands in July. Australia and other nations including the US expressed serious concern over that pact, wary of how the Chinese government may use its increasing presence and influence in the region to further its expansionist claims in the South China Sea and over Taiwan. Timor-Leste was among Pacific nations to reject a subsequent failed Chinese proposal for a regional security agreement.
Ramos-Horta, a former leader of Timor-Leste’s independence movement in exile and also a former prime minister of the country, rejected suggestions that Timor-Leste was now making the same deal.
“Military exchanges mean friendly navy ship visits,” he said when asked to clarify that section of the joint statement. “One [Chinese] Navy ship came here a few years ago and a Navy hospital ship came [two] weeks ago. It also means exchange of visits by military leaders.”
He did not respond to requests to clarify the joint statement’s mentions of personnel training, equipment technology and joint exercises. Last week he told the Guardian that Australia remained Timor-Leste’s “preferred defence and security partner”.
Ramos-Horta had previously told Reuters that military cooperation was not discussed as part of the bilateral relationship upgrade, despite its inclusion in the joint statement which he had also published on his social media. He did not respond to requests to clarify that statement.
Timor-Leste is one of the world’s most impoverished nations and is heavily reliant on oil and gas reserves to sustain its economy. It has close ties with Australia but also a complicated history primarily linked to decades of fractious negotiations between the two countries over the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.
Australia and Timor-Leste reached an agreement in 2018 after decades locked in negotiations over the reserves, during which Australia engaged in highly criticised behaviour, including spying on Timorese negotiators.