For several years, Timor-Leste has been in negotiations with the United States Government about rehabilitating Baucau airport, which has been mostly unused since the last UN peacekeeping mission ended in 2012. On 29 June 2021, Timor-Leste signed two Memoranda of Understanding with the US on rehabilitating the airport and potential support for the development of Timor-Leste’s civil aviation sector. On 13 July, a ground-breaking ceremony was held in Baucau with the Prime Minister, F-FDTL Commander, US ambassador and several other Timorese government officials present.
Government representatives from both countries have emphasised the benefits of the agreement for bilateral defence and security cooperation, Timor-Leste’s military and civil aviation capacity and Baucau’s regional development. On the other hand, some civil society groups have expressed concern that the Timor-Leste has bowed to pressure from the US to hand over control of the airport in return for unknown benefits, which risks involving Timor-Leste in the regional geopolitical competition between great powers.
Fundasaun Mahein sees that this issue raises difficult and complex questions about Timor-Leste’s foreign policy, as we are a small and new country surrounded by neighbours with much greater resources and experience. On one hand, we agree with the concern of civil society groups that we should be very careful about our engagement with big countries in relation to security cooperation. Timor-Leste should learn from our and others’ history of falling victim to external interests, which has been devastating for our people and many others around the world. However, we also believe that we need to continue with our existing bilateral cooperation programs which have improved our security sector’s capacity, while adopting a pragmatic and nuanced foreign policy which avoids “choosing sides” and maintains friendly relations with all countries which are interested to partner with us. With these principles in mind, we offer the following analysis which we hope can improve public understanding of the security, strategic and socio-economic implications of the Baucau airport agreement between Timor-Leste and the US.
As Timor-Leste’s transition to independence was overseen by the United Nations and multiple international peacekeeping forces, we have extensive experience cooperating with the security forces of other countries. Although most operational cooperation within the security forces has been with “western bloc” countries, most notably Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Portugal and the United States, F-FDTL has also conducted joint training with the Chinese Navy. The Chinese Government has also assisted Timor-Leste in building various infrastructure related to defence, security and foreign affairs, including the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Presidential Palace buildings, while the US Navy Seabees have constructed numerous civil engineering projects around the country. In addition to these major defence cooperation programs, Timor-Leste has engaged in similar programs with ASEAN and CPLP member states, as well as multilateral cooperation such as the UNDP Security Sector Development project.
This places Timor-Leste in a unique position, as our international security cooperation has not been dominated by one country or bloc, but rather has been divided between a wide variety of bilateral and multilateral partners. Moreover, Timor-Leste’s security sector has benefited greatly from the expertise and infrastructure assistance provided by its international partners. Without these programs, our security forces would not have developed to the same extent they have today. Timor-Leste also continues to maintain friendly relationships with all its defence and security cooperation partners, indicating that our “friends with all” policy has benefited us so far.
Baucau airport contains Timor-Leste’s longest runway and was used as Timor’s main airport during the Portuguese time, as well as for military operations during the periods of Indonesian occupation and UN peacekeeping. The runway can also receive long-range passenger aircraft, and many see that the Baucau region has significant potential for agriculture, tourism and industrial development. The airport is therefore considered highly strategic for both civilian and military use, as well as for enabling the socio-economic development of the Baucau region.
Successive Governments have planned to rehabilitate and develop the airport, and discussions about the project have been ongoing with the US for several years. As the US ambassador mentioned in his remarks at the ground-breaking ceremony, the latest agreement is enabled by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between Timor-Leste and the US in 2002, which established the basic terms and conditions of TL-US security cooperation. Under the latest agreement, the US will provide funding of $10.6 million for the airport project, which includes support for several infrastructure projects, including repairing the perimeter fence, building warehouses for airport vehicles and equipment, and installing runway lights for 24-hour use of the airport. The US will also provide a Cessna 206 light aircraft to be used by F-FDTL to carry out airborne surveillance.
The two governments emphasise that the agreement will strengthen Timor-Leste’s security and development by increasing F-FDTL’s surveillance capacity and improving domestic and international transport connectivity. While some civil society groups have speculated that the US intends to use its control over Baucau airport to establish a military base in Timor-Leste, Government officials have repeatedly denied this. As the agreement has not been published, it is impossible to know which other conditions it contains. However, the information available to the public raises several implications for both domestic and international security, strategic and socio-economic issues.
In terms of domestic issues, Fundasaun Mahein sees several implications from the agreement. First, the rehabilitation of the airport and defence cooperation will strengthen F-FDTL’s capacity to conduct airborne surveillance. This will help F-FDTL to fulfil its key responsibility of protecting Timor-Leste’s territorial integrity by securing the national land and maritime territory. Some policy makers have noted that increased surveillance capacity can also enable F-FDTL to prevent illegal exploitation of Timor-Leste’s natural resources, especially unauthorised fishing by foreign ships.
Raising the capacity of the defence forces through international cooperation remains a key priority of the Government, and Fundasaun Mahein supports such programs. At the same time, it is critical that the Government follows applicable laws relating to Parliamentary and Presidential oversight of bilateral security cooperation agreements. According to Law No. 3/2007 on Military Service, all security cooperation agreements must be overseen by the Superior Council on Defence and Security (CSDS), which is composed the Prime Minister, ministers in charge of defence, security and foreign affairs, three representatives of the National Parliament, Chief of the Armed Forces, Commander-General of PNTL and to citizens nominated by the President of the Republic.
However, Fundasaun Mahein observes that most security cooperation agreements have been agreed unilaterally by the executive branch without full involvement of the CSDS, or approval from other branches of government. In 2013, we asked the Government to submit Memoranda of Understanding signed between the US and Timor-Leste on security cooperation to the National Parliament for approval, but this did not happen. To our knowledge, neither CSDS nor Parliament have exercised oversight of the latest agreement on Baucau airport. Fundasaun Mahein is therefore concerned about the implications this lack of oversight has for Timor-Leste’s security policy, which we believe should be formulated according to long-term plans, with full democratic participation and consultation between the elected branches of government.
In terms of socio-economic issues, while the development of Baucau airport may benefit the area and Timor-Leste as a whole, there are also risks for local communities inherent in defence cooperation programs and infrastructure projects. Fundasaun Mahein has written before about how the use of modern weapons during military training exercises traumatised local villagers. Large-scale construction works and increased military activities bring further risks of harm to local communities either by physical injury or environmental damage, including noise pollution which can affect animal agriculture and quality of life. It also must be noted that the presence of foreign soldiers has been associated with increased sexual exploitation and violence, including in Timor-Leste during the UN peacekeeping missions. Fundasaun Mahein therefore hopes that the Baucau airport agreement includes adequate safeguards to ensure that local communities are protected from potential negative consequences of the project and future cooperation activities.
In addition to these domestic issues, the Baucau agreement raises several questions related to Timor-Leste’s foreign policy. First of all, as Timor-Leste has made joining ASEAN a top priority, it is important to assess the implications of the agreement for Timor-Leste’s ASEAN accession. To better understand these implications, it is important to briefly examine the historical and geopolitical context of the region.
Although ASEAN began as a US-aligned, anti-communist bloc, the group’s role has evolved with the changing geopolitical dynamics, and the growing economic strength of several member states has enabled the bloc to increasingly act as an independent political force in more recent years. As China has emerged to challenge US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN’s engagement with China has shifted to accommodate China’s growing status as a global power. Some smaller ASEAN members are heavily dependent on Chinese investment and aid, while ASEAN as an organisation maintains close cooperative relationships with China across many areas, including security and defence. Meanwhile, the US and allied countries have sought to counter China’s increased influence in numerous ways, including condemning China’s actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and enhancing regional security cooperation and military preparedness.
Reflecting these shifting dynamics, during the recent ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting, current Defence Minister of Indonesia and former commander of Kopassus in Timor-Leste, General Prabowo Subianto, called for “unity” among ASEAN members in the defence sector in order to prevent larger countries from dividing the bloc as part of their competition for hegemony in the region. Prabowo’s statement illustrates the growing concern within ASEAN about both Chinese and American – as well as other countries’ – efforts to pressure smaller ASEAN states into unilaterally adopting defence cooperation agreements to further their own strategic objectives. A Timorese civil society group raised similar concerns, stating that the agreement was a violation of Timor-Leste’s neutrality and put us at risk of becoming embroiled in the contest between China and the US. It argued further that the US interest in Baucau airport relates primarily to Timor-Leste’s strategic positioning as a potential base from which to monitor and counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, and warned the Government about the risks posed by great power rivalry to Timor-Leste’s sovereignty and neutrality.
Many analysts have noted that Timor-Leste occupies a geographically strategic position, particularly as the deep strait between Díli and Ataúro is a key route for submarines and ships travelling between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The US has a major military presence in both the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, while Southeast Asia is a key region for global trade and investment, so control over this sea route is extremely important for US strategic interests. The geostrategic importance of sea lines of communication (SLOC) is illustrated further by the political tensions occurring around the South China Sea during recent years, and will likely become more apparent with growing regional tensions in the coming years.
It is also well known that large powers routinely use their military and economic advantages to pressure smaller counties into signing agreements which benefit the stronger party. These deals usually also benefit the ruling class of the smaller country to some extent, either through increased military capacity which helps to consolidate their power, or economic benefits derived from trade, investment or “kickbacks”. The agreement on Baucau airport has not been made public, so we cannot know the specific conditions it entails. However, it is reasonable to assume that the US receives some benefit from the agreement, otherwise it would not have pursued the issue for several years.
In conclusion, while Fundasaun Mahein agrees that the Baucau airport agreement could bring benefits to Timor-Leste, we also hope that decision makers have adequately weighed the costs, benefits and risks of signing such an agreement. A key question is the extent to which our leaders consulted with Timor-Leste’s ASEAN partners before agreeing to the deal, and whether the Government balanced its decision with Timor-Leste’s long-term policy of being “friends with all”, and the risks and benefits which may come from the airport rehabilitation. We are very concerned about the risk of Timor-Leste becoming a site of struggle between larger powers, especially as regional tensions may increase in coming years. At the same time, Timor-Leste’s security sector is poorly prepared for both ASEAN accession and other challenges such as natural disaster response, and ongoing international cooperation is therefore crucial for increasing our capacities in these critical areas, while maintaining our good relations with our bilateral and multilateral partners. We also must not forget that we are a small, inexperienced country with limited resources and powerful neighbours, and that our history is inextricable from multilateral and bilateral cooperation and international solidarity movements.
We offer the following recommendations to help the public and policy makers to ensure that the Baucau airport agreement benefits Timor-Leste while minimising negative impacts to local communities and national security.
- While our “friends with all” foreign policy has benefited us so far, and is a realistic approach given our history and resources, increasing regional and international tensions will likely make this more challenging in the future. To safeguard our sovereignty and neutrality, Timor-Leste’s foreign policy decisions must be based on a careful analysis of these international dynamics, while we must also learn from history to avoid falling victim again to competition between foreign powers.
- There are many important international geopolitical implications of the Baucau airport agreement, but we also must not forget the needs of local communities. All defence cooperation activities and infrastructure projects must include robust safeguards for local communities to protect them from negative impacts, as well as plans for involving community members in construction works and other economic activities to generate employment and income.
- Joining ASEAN remains a priority for Timor-Leste, and entails many challenges as well as possible benefits. A major advantage of ASEAN membership would be that we could participate in regional security cooperation programs like the ADMM-Plus maritime security exercise, which brings together ASEAN members and eight partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US. If they have not already done so, Timor-Leste’s foreign policy and defence decision makers should approach ASEAN to enable Timor-Leste to join this meeting as an observer in order to access some of its benefits.