Timor-Leste is hoping to expand its engagement with the Pacific Islands through membership of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC).
Timor’s representative at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, Ambassador Abel Guterres, said his country was eager to build practical as well as political ties to the region.
“We’ve eager to work with the SPC on fisheries and the overall environmental issue is also important,” he told Islands Business. “That’s the central theme here in Palau – the preservation of the ocean and marine life.”
At the governing Conference of the Pacific Community in November 2013, the regional technical agency amended its statutes to allow membership from countries outside its existing 26 countries and territories.
Guterres, who is Timor’s Ambassador to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, said the government of Timor-Leste formally lodged its SPC membership application earlier this year.
“Our membership application is on the table,” he said, “and we must wait a year to see if there are any objections from member countries. We are hopeful however that Pacific countries will endorse it, so we can participate in the SPC family.”
The management, conservation and development of fisheries are a central challenge for the small island nation and Dili wants to draw on SPC’s decades-long fisheries expertise.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of support from SPC from their knowledge of fisheries,” Guterres said. “There is an estimation that we’re losing over $100 million a year from poaching in the Timor Sea, because we have no ability to patrol the area.”
In 2010, an SPC team visited Dili, as part of a European-funded SPC fisheries project aimed at ACP countries (even without SPC membership, Timor-Leste is a Pacific-ACP country for the purposes of the European Development Fund).
“We benefitted from this initial outreach and we hope that this can be extended in other ways through our membership of the SPC,” said Guterres.
Even though Timor-Leste is still primarily looking west to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it has some difficulties coping with the size of the South-East Asian network: “There are over 700 ASEAN meetings a year, which places pressure on a small nation like ours!”
For this reason, the Timorese government has been extending ties to Pacific organisations. Timor-Leste has held observer status with the Pacific Islands Forum since 2002, but Dili is now reaching out to other regional organisations, including the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF).
In 2011, MSG leaders endorsed applications for observer status by Indonesia and Timor-Leste. In September that year, Timorese leader Xanana Gusmăo visited the MSG Secretariat in Port Vila in the first visit by an overseas head of government since the Secretariat was opened in 2008. Timorese officials announced a US$500,000 grant to the MSG for salaries and projects – a practical gesture drawing on the revenues raised from the exploitation of Timor Sea oil reserves.
President Gusmao also attended the inaugural PIDF meeting in 2013 alongside leaders from Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, and Federated States of Micronesia. One practical outcome of the PIDF was an agreement between Gusmao and Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama for members of the Fiji Volunteer Service to work in Timor-Leste in education and other sectors, through a memorandum of understanding signed in November 2013.
“We wait for the process to unfold with SPC,” said Guterres, “but hope to join the family next year.”