19 November 2010
South Korean patrol vessel (photo : Militaryphotos)
East Timor is acquiring two navy patrol boats from South Korea as the country moves further out of Australia's sphere of military influence.
The acquisition, which has not been publicly announced, comes after the country bought two 43-metre Chinese patrol boats, which strained relations between Australia and the government in Dili earlier this year.
East Timor's marine police unit is also moving to purchase nine smaller boats, adding to its fleet of three, the marine police commander, Lino Saldanha, told journalists in Dili.
When the South Korean navy boats arrive, foreign-trained crews in four foreign-built boats will be patrolling East Timor's territorial waters, which are crucial to Australia's defence and border protection.
Australia tried to negotiate for the Australian Defence Force to take charge of patrolling the waters during negotiations over the Greater Sunrise gas field in the Timor Sea. But the then Fretilin government rejected the attempt, insisting the waters in a joint petroleum development area be left open to international law.
Sources in Dili say the deal with South Korea also involves the acquisition of a publicly unknown quantity of munitions.
East Timor's Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, said last week his country could not rely on Australia and Indonesia to guarantee its independence. ''As a territory, seated in the crossroads of Asia and the Pacific, between Australia and Indonesia - giant neighbours with different backgrounds, which have been in the past able to adopt a common policy in relation to our destiny - East Timor has to avoid falling into political naivety, thinking that our constitution, on its own, can guarantee our national independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty over its own resources,'' the Portuguese news agency Lusa quoted Mr Gusmao as saying.
''Even the countries that have been democratic and developed for centuries concern themselves with their defence and security, investing in these vital areas, which East Timor itself must do,'' said Mr Gusmao, who is also the Defence Minister.
He also signalled his government is moving to boost East Timor's internal security. ''Today's technological sophistication places us at the mercy of large economic interests, always driving their own political interests.''
When the Chinese patrol boats were launched in June, Ian Storey, a regional defence expert at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore, said Dili wanted to ''demonstrate to Canberra that it has other choices when it comes to defence partners''.
East Timor paid $US28 million for the 1960s-designed, 175-tonne Shanghai class boats.
The Timorese leadership decided last month that 400 Australian soldiers serving in the International Stabilisation Force would leave the country after elections in 2012.