Australia Bolsters Tiny Neighbor’s Naval Base to Counter China

Jason Scott

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Australia is pledging to help its Southeast Asian neighbor, Timor-Leste, upgrade a naval base and train a patrol-boat crew as the U.S. ally seeks to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

“This is a new chapter for Australia and Timor-Leste that is based on our shared respect, interests and values,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in an statement. He’s due to visit the capital Dili as the young nation marks the 20th anniversary of the referendum that led to its independence in 2002.

The package includes construction of new facilities at Hera Naval Base near Dili on the country’s north coast -- including a land-backed wharf -- and an offer to fund planning for a broader upgrade of the current facilities. It will also provide a vessel to help train crew for Timor-Leste’s two new Guardian Class Patrol Boats, to be gifted by Australia in 2023.

Australia and the U.S. are ramping up efforts to keep vulnerable nations on-side as China bolsters its economic and diplomatic footprint in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Beijing’s strategy is leading to concern its endgame could be to operate military bases in the region.

The Trump administration has warned such countries to avoid becoming indebted to Beijing. China has already poured money into Timor-Leste, including building its energy grid, government offices and two new commercial ports -- one of which is linked to the proposed $12 billion Greater Sunrise liquefied natural gas development, leading to speculation Chinese state-owned banks may fund the entire project.

“It’s not a surprise that China is heavily involved in” Timor-Leste, said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, in an interview on Wednesday. “Weaker states like Timor-Leste run the risk of getting addicted to Chinese debt and when they can’t pay it back, Beijing could take control of key assets, such as ports that could then be used by its military. The U.S. and Australia are rightly nervous about that prospect.”

Timor-Leste is less than 500 miles from Australia’s northern port of Darwin, where about 2,500 U.S. Marines are based.

In further signs of Australia’s bid to bolster its commitment to Timor-Leste, Morrison will on Friday announce support for a subsea fiber-optic cable linking the two nations, as well as formalizing a previously announced maritime boundary treaty that will help allow development of Greater Sunrise.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Scott in Dili at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, Jeanette Rodrigues

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