Give our country $100bn – or stop lecturing us about making money from fossil fuels.
That was the message East Timor President and Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta had on Wednesday for those in the West raising environmental concerns about his nation’s proposal to build a new gas-processing plant.
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Ramos-Horta was speaking in Australia after the two countries signed a new defence agreement.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s office said the agreement “will allow our two countries to increase defence and security cooperation, especially in the maritime domain”.
The East Timor leader is also hoping for a breakthrough during his visit to Australia on a long-stalled project with Canberra to develop the Greater Sunrise gas fields, which lie beneath the seabed separating the two countries.
Good to meet with President Ramos-Horta today, as Australia and Timor-Leste signed a reciprocal Defence Cooperation Agreement.
Australia is committed to supporting Timor-Leste’s economic resilience, security and sovereignty. pic.twitter.com/DrbQnGRUNR
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) September 7, 2022
Long touted as a joint venture between the two countries, the two fields that make up Greater Sunrise were discovered in 1974 and hold an estimated 5.1 trillion cubic feet of gas and 226 million barrels of condensate, a type of light crude oil typically found with gas.
But exploration has been stalled due to disputes over maritime boundaries and whether the gas should be refined in Australia or East Timor.
Ramos-Horta said on Wednesday that Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and China could all be interested investors.
He named the countries as potential alternative suitors as he pushed Australia over the project, and the thorny issue of where future gas would be processed.
Dili is looking to pipe the gas to East Timor – where it expects more economic benefits from a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant. Australia wants the gas piped to an existing LNG gas hub in its northern city of Darwin.
Ramos-Horta said it made no sense to him to send the gas to Darwin, which would require a 500-kilometre (310-mile) pipeline, rather than to East Timor with a 200 km pipeline and added that operating costs in Timor would be much less than in Australia.
“I don’t understand the economic logic of the joint venture of insisting to take that pipeline. But we are open to discussions with the government,” he said.
He urged Australia to back a pipeline to East Timor, saying it could help turn his country into the next Dubai or Singapore, bringing the country $50bn in revenue and $50bn in development benefits.
“We have a neighbour, Australia, that can make this miracle happen,” Ramos-Horta said.
Ramos Horta, who was speaking to reporters at the National Press Club in Canberra, mooted Beijing’s involvement as a possible investor, aware it would likely raise hackles in Australia.
“Of course China [could be involved]. It’s a pipeline, we are not talking about maritime security. It’s just a pipeline. China would just be an investor,” he said.
Policymakers in Canberra are likely to baulk at Chinese involvement in critical infrastructure so close to Australia’s borders.
Australia is already concerned about China’s rapidly expanding regional influence, including in East Timor, which gained independence in 2002 and sits just a few hundred kilometres (miles) off Australia’s northern coast.
China has built East Timor’s parliament, Ramos-Horta’s presidential palace and the country’s foreign ministry.
A reporter asked how East Timor could justify the LNG project given the climate impacts.
Ramos-Horta replied that gas was cleaner than some fossil fuels, and he listed countries that had benefitted from those fuels, including the US and Japan, and then later China and India.
“But first the Europeans, you were the ones who polluted the whole world with coal, with oil, and everything that you can imagine,” he said.
“And we, unfortunately, discover oil and gas only now. And the Europeans are lecturing us: We have to move away from fossil fuel.”
He said the gas field could generate $100bn or more in revenue.
“I have no authority to make any proposal, but I can make one off the top of my head,” Ramos-Horta said. “The Europeans, Australia, the US, give us $100bn and we give up on the Greater Sunrise development. As simple as that.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Australia and East Timor signed a defence agreement, which comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, particularly after the Solomon Islands in April signed a new security pact with China.
Asked about his views on the move by the Solomon Islands, Ramos-Horta said he was not that familiar with the nation but that the wider region is a “very sensitive strategic location.”
“Any leader that is serious about being a leader, you have to be sensitive to your neighbours,” he said.
“Don’t bring in extraterritorial, regional interests, powers, that might not be welcomed by our neighbours,” he said.