09 Juni 2010
Type 62 Shanghai class (photo :diliinsider )
TWO 43-metre Chinese-made navy patrol boats, mounted with 30-millimetre canons, will be launched in East Timor this week in what observers say is a slap in the face for Australian diplomacy.
The 175-tonne Shanghai Class boats designed in the 1960s have arrived in East Timor at a time of strained relations between the Rudd government and the four-party coalition in Dili led by former guerrilla fighter Xanana Gusmao.
East Timor purchased the boats from a Chinese company in 2008 without consulting Australia, which has had hundreds of troops deployed in the country since 2006.
Ian Storey, an expert on East Timor's relationship with China, told The Age Dili bought the boats to ''demonstrate to Canberra that it has other choices when it comes to defence partners''. But Mr Storey, a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said he understood the boats would be used for fishery protection duties ''and in that sense, have no inherent strategic value … that is, nothing for neighbouring countries to worry about.''
A statement from East Timor's Ministry of Defence and Security said the boats, which will initially be manned by Chinese crews while Timorese crews are trained, will be able to travel 1000 kilometres and remain at sea for a week.
Defence Minister Julio Tomas Pinto said the boats were an ''urgent'' response to combat illegal activities in East Timor's exclusive economic zone.
East Timor's $US28 million ($A33.9 million) purchase of the boats from Poly Technologies, a subsidiary of China Poly Group, a defence company with close ties to the Chinese military, stirred controversy in the small nation. The government made the purchase without conducting an open tender process.
It came at a time when China was spending millions to establish an economic, diplomatic and strategic foothold in East Timor, with an interest in gaining access to East Timor's oil and gas reserves.
Observers in East Timor believe Australia's relationship with East Timor is at its lowest point since the country gained independence in 2002.
In fiery speeches in rural provinces in recent weeks, Mr Gusmao has been attacking plans by Woodside Petroleum to build a floating liquefied natural gas platform above the multibillion-dollar Greater Sunrise field in the Timor Sea. Timorese media had quoted him as saying the Timorese must unite to stop Australia stealing their wealth.
Mr Gusmao is threatening to block the Greater Sunrise project unless the consortium pipes the gas to a plant on East Timor, which would boost economic development where most people live in poverty.
Woodside estimates Australia and East Timor would share $US32 billion ($A38.75 billion) profit from a floating development at the field. Dili newspaper Tempo Semanal said relations between Canberra and Dili had sunk almost to a point where they could no longer talk to each other. A Defence spokesman last night rejected any suggestion China was attempting to supplant Australia's defence partnership with East Timor, saying the Australian government supported a co-operative security community and encouraged China's engagement as a responsible stakeholder.