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East Timor plans to restart border talks with Australia

Associated Press logo Associated Press 9/01/2017 By ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia — East Timor plans to negotiate a larger share of the oil and gas wealth in the seabed between the impoverished Southeast Asian nation and Australia by restarting talks on a maritime boundary.

East Timor and Australia said in a joint statement on Monday that the tiny half-island country plans to give its wealthy neighbor three months' notice that a bilateral treaty on sharing Timor Sea oil and gas will be terminated. That 2006 treaty also suspended negotiations on a maritime boundary for 50 years.

By reverting to a 2002 treaty, East Timor plans to restart negotiations and hopes persuade Australia to accept a boundary midway between the countries, Deakin University expert on Southeast Asia Damien Kingsbury said.

Australia has long maintained that the border should extend beyond it large continental shelf and much closer to the East Timorese shore, but has failed to reach agreement on the subject with East Timor or with Indonesia which controlled the province before the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999.

Instead, Australia has shared the energy wealth of the disputed seabed within an area known as the Joint Petroleum Development Area.

East Timor currently collects 90 percent of royalties from the area, which go into a national fund.

Kingsbury said East Timor stood to gain 100 percent of those royalties as the oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea were drying up over the next decade.

Australia confirmed its commitment to negotiate a maritime boundary and said in the joint statement that it recognized East Timor's right to terminate the 2006 treaty.

East Timor's Ambassador to Australia, Abel Guterres, said he expected Australia to accept international law in deciding where the boundary should lie.

"It's quite welcome for Australia to take this step and for us to deal with this issue once and for all," Guterres said. "It's very important for both countries in our bilateral relations as well as regional stability and security."

East Timor and Australia opened conciliation on the maritime boundary last year before a panel of five experts at a conciliation commission in The Hague convened under an international treaty governing the laws of the sea.

The acrimonious dispute has long soured relations between East Timor and Australia, which played a pivotal role in helping East Timor gain independence after a long occupation by Indonesia.

The relationship plumbed new depths in 2013 amid allegations that Australian spies bugged the East Timorese Cabinet ahead of crucial revenue-sharing negotiations. Australia rejects the claim, which is the focus of a separate arbitration case between the countries.

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