East Timor Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa snubbed the Asia-Pacific ministerial meeting on human trafficking and people smuggling, where Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had hoped to lure him into some bilateral bargaining.
Da Costa instead flew to Fiji to attend a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a trading bloc in which East Timor only has ‘observer status’, and sent his vice-minister, Alberto Carlos, to Bali to deal with the insistent Australians.
Carlos told Australian media that while East Timor would be open to discussions in the future, the nation had other priorities and would not discuss the issue at the Bali meeting.
This comes as a surprise, because for weeks before the meeting, all questions to Australian officials about the processing centre were palmed off. The correct forum to discuss that, they reiterated, was in Bali.
Having learnt that East Timor will not engage with Australia in Bali, the government is now trying to save face and claim that East Timor was never the key focus of the meeting.
"The Bali meeting is not specifically about an East Timor processing centre, but about seeking a regional consensus on tackling people smuggling," Bowen’s spokesman told New Matilda.
But there is no hiding the fact that Australia has again got ahead of itself on the issue, as it did last July in a humiliating gaffe by Julia Gillard.
When Gillard rashly announced that East Timor had agreed to the centre last July, no one but President Jose Ramos-Horta, who has no decision-making power, seemed to have heard of the plan, and it was swiftly rejected by East Timor’s parliament.
During a pre-election debate, opposition leader Tony Abbott called the announcement a "pre-election fudge", and nine months on, the slow progress on the centre is proving Abbott right.
Australia is struggling to get its neighbour’s attention. It is obviously trying.
Since Gillard announced the agreement-that-wasn’t last year, the government’s rhetoric around the processing centre has gone from cocksure to diplomatic.
"Irregular migration is a very complex regional challenge, and we have said all along that there is no quick fix to tackling people smuggling," Bowen’s spokesman said.
And it’s true that East Timor, as Carlos said, does have its own pressing issues to deal with.
One immediate task is national security. On Monday, the United Nations police handed back full control of East Timor’s security to the national police after a five-year presence, which was prompted by civil unrest in 2006. The UN police plan to fully withdraw in 2012 after the presidential election.
East Timor is also concentrating on its campaign to be included in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Having secured support from Indonesia and Thailand, East Timor is hoping to impress other ASEAN nations, many of which are concerned East Timor will be a burden on the regional bloc’s economic plans.
To get East Timor to add the processing centre to its to-do list, Australia will have to make it an offer it can’t refuse. As SBS Dateline reported last week, the tiny nation is busy making deals with China to increase the capacity of its fledgling defence force. East Timor’s Secretary of State for Defence, Julio Pinto, told Dateline of his close relationship with his Chinese counterpart: "They said if you need something, you ask China to help and we are ready to help." Interestingly, China has also bank-rolled the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
In the case of the regional processing centre, however, it is still unclear exactly what offer is on the table. The Australian government has only said the centre will bring the East Timorese "benefits", but has failed to publicly put a dollar figure on them.
At this point, the best the Australian government can hope for out of the Bali summit is a framework on human trafficking and people smuggling in which a regional processing centre might be justifiable.
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