Suspension of Patrol Boat Delivery from Australia Harms National Security

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Fundasaun Mahein (FM) was alarmed by the recent news that an agreement for the delivery of two Guardian-class patrol boats to Timor-Leste from Australia has been suspended. Timor-Leste officials have stated that Australia made the decision due to the “poor condition of the naval port at Hera,” and, further, that the boats cannot be delivered to either Dili or Tibar port due to the current conditions at these ports. The Minister of Defence has said that the Timor-Leste Government will continue to improve the condition of Hera naval port “working together with Australia and other countries,” so that Timor-Leste can receive the two patrol boats.

The decision and subsequent explanatory statements have left many observers perplexed, for several reasons. First, the Australian Government issued a statement in March 2024 affirming that Timor-Leste would receive the vessels this year. Further, FM, along with other observers, had long-advocated for the speedy transfer of the boats as an essential step towards boosting Timor-Leste’s maritime security capacity. The boats were to be transferred as part of a comprehensive integration package, including training, maintenance, and rehabilitation of Hera naval port. Indeed, construction was ongoing at the Hera facility, raising questions about the statements provided by Timor-Leste officials about the suspension of the patrol boat delivery.

Although it may seem straightforward, this issue is somewhat complicated as it likely reflects both broad political agendas, and, potentially, narrower private interests. Moreover, FM believes that that the decision will have a major impact on the integrity and performance of Timor-Leste’s security institutions, and, by extension, national security as a whole. The following article elaborates some of the issues which may be at play, and outlines FM’s concerns about the suspension of the boat deal.

First, regardless of which party took the decision to suspend the boat delivery, it has occurred within the broader regional security context of the growing geopolitical competition unfolding in the Indo- and Asia-Pacific regions between China and the western bloc. This competition has created space for small countries such as Timor-Leste to leverage their geostrategic significance in order to extract benefits from larger neighbours and partners. As FM wrote at the time, Timor-Leste’s strategic partnership with China, signed in September 2023, reflects these shifting regional dynamics and geopolitical interests.

The agreement promised increased military-security cooperation, although so far this has been limited to “goodwill visits” by Chinese navy ships. By expanding Timor-Leste’s security cooperation with other partners such as China, Timorese leaders are pursuing a risky, but potentially high-reward, strategy. Indeed, Timor-Leste’s strategy seems to be yielding results – recent reports indicate that Australia is now poised to strike a deal on the Greater Sunrise gas project, largely due to Australian concerns that Timor-Leste is moving closer to China. However, the decision to suspend the delivery of the boats, if indeed made by Australia, may be a response to Timor-Leste’s strategy to “playing both sides”. On the other hand, if Timorese officials made the decision, it is likely part of the broader strategy to pressure Australia by playing on its security concerns by appearing “unpredictable” in the area of security cooperation.

The situation with the patrol boats is further complicated by the potential existence of private interests which may stand to benefit from a reorganisation of the current program of rehabilitating the Hera naval facility. FM has learned that the construction project at Hera – which was being led by Australian military contractors – has been halted following the suspension of the boat delivery. As noted by a senior F-FDTL official, companies from unspecified “other countries” may now be brought in to complete the construction. Given the significant amount of money involved, and our knowledge of how construction contracts are often negotiated in Timor-Leste, FM is concerned that state officials may seek to gain private benefits by renegotiating the construction contract. To be clear, FM does not have direct evidence of corruption in this case; however, the reality is that many construction contracts in Timor-Leste involve side-payments to government officials, especially when construction companies are willing to provide bribes.

FM sincerely hopes that our suspicions about private interests driving important political decisions such as these are unfounded. However, the reasoning provided by Timorese officials makes little sense, which raises concerns that other agendas may be involved. Nonetheless, beyond the question of which party decided to suspend the boat delivery, FM sees two additional risks arising from the decision. First, as noted in a previous article, there is growing internal discontent and disunity within Timor-Leste’s security sector, including between members of the elite, as well as between rank-and-file members and the current leadership. Several members of F-FDTL’s hierarchy are reportedly extremely unhappy with the suspension of the boat deal. Once again, FM reminds policy makers and the public about the dangers posed by a fragmented and politicised security sector. As we have seen in Timor-Leste’s past, and in many other contexts, such fragmentation poses a serious threat to national stability and security, especially as it provides opportunities for malicious actors to exploit divisions for their own interests.

Another major risk resulting from the suspension of this program is the impact on the performance and development of the military, and the consequent implications for Timor-Leste’s national security. As noted above, the patrol boats were to be delivered as part of a comprehensive support package from Australia. This included not only the transfer of the vessels but also training, maintenance for thirty years, and the upgrading of the military jetty at Hera. In FM’s view, these measures would have significantly bolstered Timor-Leste’s maritime security capacity. Maritime security is a critical area for Timor-Leste, particularly due to the significant economic losses associated with illegal fishing, a fact which many policy makers have noted publicly. Thus, the suspension of the boat deal represents a significant lost opportunity for enhancing maritime security and safeguarding the country’s natural resources.

In conclusion, whether the decision to suspend the delivery of the patrol boats came from Australia or Timor-Leste, FM believes that it will significantly harm the development of Timor-Leste’s maritime security capacity, and, by extension, overall national security. If Australia did indeed make the decision, it is a confusing one given the state of the program and recent statements, but it may be linked with broader concerns about Timor-Leste’s foreign policy decisions. One the other hand, if Timor-Leste made the decision, it runs directly counter to stated concerns about the urgent need to boost maritime security capacity; it therefore seems inconsistent while failing to serve national interests.

At the same time, FM remains extremely concerned about the influence of corrupt, private interests over political decisions and the growing dissatisfaction among military officers with decisions being made by F-FDTL’s leadership. Therefore, FM urges the Government to ensure that all decisions are made according to the rule of law with the aim of furthering national interests, which means eliminating practices which seek to abuse public offices for private gain. Moreover, FM hopes that the President and National Parliament will exercise adequate oversight of decisions made by military officials related to strategic security cooperation programs. This includes scrutinising the suspension of the patrol boat delivery to determine which party took the decision, which factors influenced it, and how the situation can be remedied so that the delivery goes ahead as previously planned.

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