Dili (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In its search for oil and other energy sources to sustain its economic growth Beijing is showing greater interest in Timor Leste (East Timor). Ten years after the small country gained its freedom from Indonesia in 1999, Beijing has given Dili more than US$ 53 million in aid. A small drop in the bucket compared to Australia’s US$ 760 million, but aid that goes beyond humanitarian assistance to include funds for urban development and food aid like a donation of 8,000 tonnes of rice during a recent food crisis. Over the years, the Chinese have always shown generosity to the tiny south-east Asian country.
China and Timor Leste's links date back centuries. Hakka Chinese traders sailed there more than 500 years ago, looking for precious woods. Many stayed on, forming an overseas Chinese community as in other parts of Asia. Since independence, relations between Dili and Beijing have grown with renewed vigour.
Dili's gleaming new Presidential Palace and Foreign Ministry, gifts from Beijing, stand in stark contrast to nearby burnt-out buildings.
Today, Dili's main street is dotted with buildings displaying Chinese script; families can be seen praying at a Confucian temple in downtown Dili, whilst Chinese traders run appliance stores on busy streets.
Now China is calling in East Timor’s IOUs but its ambassador has dismissed speculation that its interest is being driven by a desire to gain economic and trade advantages.
“All this assistance from China to East Timor is full of sincerity and without any selfishness,” Ambassador Fu Yuancong said. Beijing has offered the government of President José Ramos-Horta pledges of full “co-operation”.
A number of issues are on the table, first and foremost, Timor Leste’s oil fields. The Bayu Undan gas field is expected to reap US-15 billion by 2023. Another oil field, Kitan, has an estimated 40 million barrels of recoverable light oil, and the Greater Sunrise field contains around 300 million barrels of condensate and 9.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Beijing is also eyeing lucrative opportunities in the minerals sector, including copper, gold, silver and marble
However, a major hurdle for the Chinese is the high level of corruption in the East Timorese government, a situation that has frustrated the international community.
Since independence, US$ 8.8 billion in aid have disappeared. That works out at US$ 8,000 for each of Timor Leste's 1.1 million people. In fact, foreign aid has not much contributed to the country’s economic development.
High-level East Timorese political leaders and government officials have acknowledged the problem, saying that millions of dollars have been wasted on overlapping or incomplete projects or gone missing because of donor rivalry, mismanagement and corruption.