East Timor's existence is under threat because of Australia's claims over the poor nation's natural resources, President Xanana Gusmao claims.
In a Four Corners report to be aired tonight, Mr Gusmao said Australia was defying international law with its claims over oil and natural gas deposits in the Timor Sea.
Australia and East Timor are at loggerheads over the boundary that separates the two nations.
At stake are key energy deposits which, when developed, will be worth billions in tax revenues to the respective countries.
East Timor believes the border should be drawn in the middle of the 600km of sea separating the countries.
That would place 90 per cent of the oil and gas reserves on East Timor's side. Australia wants its continental shelf to be the border. In some places that is just 150km from East Timor's coastline.
Under the current agreement, East Timor gets 20 per cent of the Greater Sunrise gas field, the richest in the area. Australia takes 80 per cent.
Australia has a clear choice between fairness and unfairness. There are competing rules of international law for drawing a maritime boundary. The mid-line between Australia and East Timor gives the Timorese a much greater share of the oil and natural gas. The line of the continental shelf gives Australia the lion's share.
Article 15 of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea provides:
Where the coasts of two States are opposite or adjacent to each other, neither of the two States is entitled, failing agreement between them to the contrary, to extend its territorial sea beyond the median line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial seas of each of the two States is measured. The above provision does not apply, however, where it is necessary by reason of historic title or other special circumstances to delimit the territorial seas of the two States in a way which is at variance therewith.
The Howard government's belief in its own position cannot be all that strong, because they excised maritime border disputes from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Law of the Sea Tribunal. I am not sure 'It's ours because we wants it, don't we, precious' is all that ringing a claim to sound in the halls of justice.
Australia's only contested maritime boundary is with East Timor.
The chances of East Timor becoming a failed state, or a client state entirely dependent on Australian help. are greatly increased by claiming the continental shelf line. Excising the dispute from the ICJ's jurisdiction is just rigging the rules in favour of the government. The article also contains the usual bluster from the Foreign Minister of Kleenex.
A little longterm thought is in order.