Is Dili entangled in Beijing-Tokyo Row?
Melbourne, 9 May 2016
Melbourne, 9 May 2016
By: Laurentina ‘mica’ Barreto Soares
|mica Barreto Soares is a PhD candidate at the Swinburne University in Melbourne|
In contrast to their strong economic ties as the two largest economies in Asia, for the past 70 years, China-Japan relations have never been politically friendly. Bilateral relations continue to be haunted by their bitter past of war, which ended in 1945 where China claimed victory. Both countries have accused the other of failing to acknowledge their wartime past. Over the past six years, both countries have clashed over territorial sovereignty over eight uninhabited islands known in Japanese as Senkaku and in Chinese as Diaoyu in the East China Sea. Numerous maritime confrontations have seen bilateral relations deteriorate, particularly in areas of political and security cooperation.
The maritime dispute in the region has not just complicated China and Japan’s relations in the East China Sea. It also involved China and Taiwan and four other ASEAN countries – the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is geostrategically significant in global politics and a vital gateway for economic activities in the region. China’s territorial claims, based on the so-called ‘nine-dash lines’, are seen as a great threat to security in the region. These matters trigger major power politics, and the United States and ASEAN member states have challenged China, urging peaceful resolution based on international jurisdiction and the United Nations Conventional of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China, however, prefers to deal with the matter bilaterally, and is refusing to have any involvement in third party dispute settlement.
Where is Timor-Leste in these disputes? Clearly, Timor-Leste is not a party to the disputes in either the East or South China Sea. But Dili has a maritime border dispute with Australia over the Timor Sea. As an observer in ASEAN, Timor-Leste has always called for peaceful and legal settlement over the dispute based on international mechanism under UNCLOS. As a small nation, Dili is at pains not to take sides, but is consistent in its support for the application of international law in regional maritime boundary disputes.
Timor-Leste’s neutrality in the East and South China Sea disputes reflects its ‘zero enemies’ foreign policy approach. Recently, however, Dili experienced blowback from the Beijing-Tokyo row, becoming embroiled in Sino-Japan relations over their maritime dispute in the East China Sea. In March 2016, Timor-Leste’s President Taur Matan Ruak visited Tokyo, a trip that was supposed to be combined with Ruak’s earlier visit to China in September 2015 for China’s 70th Anniversary of ‘The Victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression’. This timing became a sensitive issue for Japan, and so the visit was rescheduled.
The 2016 visit of President Ruak to Tokyo and his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attracted controversy. Japanese and other international media (see include Japan Times, Asahi, E-global, Breitbart, Xinhua and South China Morning Post) reported the joint press release by Japan and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, which stated that both leaders “expressed serious concern over the recent situation in the South China Sea, …” (see Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Join Press Release 15 March 2016). Beijing was asked about the joint statement in a regular press conference that week, and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang was quoted as saying “Japan is in no position at all to make such irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea issue … we hope that the relevant country can tell right from wrong, mind its words and actions, and avoid being used by some country that harbors ulterior motives for selfish gains” (see Ministry Foreign Affairs of China Regular Press Conference 17 March 2015).
China’s uneasiness over maritime disputes has made it watchful of any critical commentary. Beijing’s suspicion of Tokyo’s influence over Timor-Leste on the territorial disputes in the East China Sea has put Timor-Leste in an awkward position. The episode demonstrates that Beijing will not hesitate to raise its voice now or in the future should anyone challenge its territorial integrity. China sent a clear message to Dili, and a warning to not meddle with the disputes over the East and South China Sea. To neutralise the situation, Dili’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately clarified Timor-Leste’s position to its counterpart in China, restating Timor-Leste’s belief in negotiation and dialogue to solve the disputes, within the constraints of the international legal norms.
Timor-Leste’s call for a consistent approach to international norms in regional maritime boundary disputes is a clear reference to the continuing dispute with Australia over the Timor Sea maritime boundaries. China’s stand has much in common with Australia’s position over the Timor Sea dispute in its rejection of third-party dispute settlement under international law, and non-recognition of the jurisdiction of UNCLOS and other international treaties in relation to the dispute. China’s claims in the South and East China Sea are based on historical claims, which under contemporary international law, are disputable. According to international law, Australia is obliged to negotiate a maritime boundary with Timor-Leste, however Australia has repeatedly refused to negotiate. Timor-Leste seeks a median line boundary according to the prevailing international norms. In the second week of April 2016, Timor-Leste launched compulsory conciliation proceedings on maritime boundaries with Australia after exhausting all avenues for negotiation (see Government of Timor-Leste 11 April 2016). This compulsory conciliation under UNCLOS involves independent legal experts whom their appointment would be directly conducted by the concerned parties. A total of five independent legal experts would be involved, two appointed by Timor-Leste, two by Australia and one by the United Nations General Secretary.
Timor-Leste found itself in uncomfortable situation caught in the Sino-Japanese row, entangled between the two giants’ maritime disputes. Timor-Leste should be cautious, as it has to date in its diplomatic engagement with the matter and other countries in the region. On the other hand, the incident reflected Timor-Leste’s continuing support for the application of international law to maritime boundaries disputes in the region, with a clear eye to the ongoing dispute with Australia in the Timor Sea.
- Embassy of the People’s Republic of China Embassy to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. (2016). Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Regular Press Conference on 17 March 2016. Retrieved 2 May 2016 from website: http://tl.chineseembassy.org/eng/fyrth/t1348632.htm
- Government of Timor-Leste. (2016). Media release 11 April 2016: “Timor-Leste launches United Nations compulsory conciliation proceedings on maritime boundaries with Australia.” Retrieved 2 May 2016 from website: http://timor-leste.gov.tl/?p=14978&lang=en
- Hayton, B. (2014). The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia. New Heaven: Yale University Press.
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. (2016). Joint Press Release by Japan and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste 15 March 2016: “Advanced Partnership towards Growth and Prosperity.” Retrieved 2 May 2016 from website: http://www.mofa.go.jp/s_sa/sea2/tp/page4e_000390.html