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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 05:16 GMT 06:16 UK
East Timor lines up foreign friends
Members of South East Asian regional trade group Asean
East Timor is keen to join the right international 'clubs'
As East Timor gains full nationhood on 20 May, its new government will take steps to establish diplomatic relations with neighbours and friends. Regional analyst Nicholas Nugent assesses its likely priorities.

A small nation that cannot afford a big army will try to guarantee its security through diplomacy.


Gusmao... seems to be emulating... Nelson Mandela, in the absence of any vindictiveness towards his former enemy

This truism has already been adopted as a principle of East Timor's foreign policy, which is why the new nation's highest priorities are to establish friendly relations with Indonesia and Australia, its two big neighbours.

Independence marks the formalisation of East Timor's breach from Indonesia after quarter of a century of brutal rule, so it will take magnanimity to sink past differences and build a new friendship.

Yet this is what the new government in Dili, the East Timor capital, has set out to do.

Moving on

East Timor shares an island and a land border with its large western neighbour and most of its people were brought up to speak the Indonesian language. Some went for higher education in Java, Bali or elsewhere.

Indonesian-backed militias on the rampage in 1999
After Indonesia's brutal rule, East Timor wants to mend ties

An estimated 60,000 still live in refugee camps in Indonesia, though the new government hopes to persuade them to return.

East Timor's new President, Xanana Gusmao, the former guerrilla fighter who spent six years in Indonesian prisons, seems to be emulating another guerrilla leader-turned president, Nelson Mandela, in the absence of any vindictiveness towards his former enemy.

He knows that, as neighbours, they have to get on.

There are differences though. Apart from the refugees in West Timor, Gusmao and his government are disappointed that Jakarta has so far brought to trial only a handful of the army officers implicated in the violence and destruction that followed East Timor's vote to break with Indonesia.

Australia's legacy

Relations are warmer with Australia, which was the first country to send in peacekeepers to put down that violence.

Xanana Gusmao (left) with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in 1999
East Timor has a special relationship with Australia

Since then, Australian soldiers and civilians have played an important role in rebuilding East Timor, and Australian cities have been key stopping points for East Timorese ministers seeking foreign help and support.

Yet Dili is eager to renegotiate sea boundaries with its southern neighbour, to assert its rights over the oil and gas fields in the so-called Timor Gap.

After normalisation of relations with Indonesia, this is the next most delicate area of diplomacy ahead because it will determine how much revenue the new government collects.

After establishing embassies in Jakarta and Canberra, East Timor's Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, plans to send diplomats to Portugal, the territory's colonial ruler, whose language has been adopted as the national tongue.

East Timor will also open missions in Brussels and Washington, reflecting the closeness it has established with countries of the European Union and with America during the transition period.

Dili may also have calculated that these nations are best placed to offer continuing financial assistance as the new nation strives to become self-sufficient. Opening overseas missions will strain the resources of a small nation of around 800,000 inhabitants.

Joining the clubs

Beyond bilateral relationships, Dili is keen to join the right international 'clubs'.

Top of the list is undoubtedly the United Nations, to which it expects to gain speedy admission. It also wants to join Asean, a security and economic alliance of South East Asian nations.

Membership of Asean would help it to heal differences with Indonesia and give access to other key neighbours like Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore, all of whom contributed troops to the peacekeeping force in Timor.

Reaching out
East Timor will open six foreign embassies this year
They will be in Jakarta, Canberra, Lisbon, Kuala Lumpur, Washington and Brussels
Wants to join Asean, the UN and maybe the South Pacific Forum

Deputy Foreign Minister Fernando de Araujo told an Australian audience that East Timor wanted to be part of Asean, and was equally keen to strengthen what he called 'South-South relations' with other Third World countries in the Asian region.

He said: "We face the same dilemmas as them in development and nation building."

One possible problem is that Burma is threatening to block East Timor's membership because Xanana Gusmao has criticised the regime there.

Interestingly, the main push for East Timor to be admitted is coming from within Asean, suggesting the invitation will not be long in coming. East Timorese leaders have already been invited to Asean meetings as observers.

Dili may also seek membership of the South Pacific Forum, which links Australia and New Zealand with Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island states. It could become the first nation to belong to both Asean and the Forum.

A novel suggestion from Indonesia is that a new West Pacific Forum be created to link Australia, East Timor and Indonesia - and perhaps Papua New Guinea.

East Timor's new leaders are acutely conscious that they were the cause of Indonesia and Australia falling out, when Canberra reversed its support for the territory's incorporation as an Indonesian province.

They would like to have just as powerful role in bringing their two strong neighbours together again.


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