‘It’s academic’… but it’s important... Maritime boundaries

To many of us the term ‘it’s academic’ means that the subject of discussion is of no practical importance or of any immediate relevance. But there are some ‘academic’ issues, even if at first sight they’re very obscure and have little practical significance, that are of vital importance to some people.


So perhaps we should take a few moments from the hurly-burly of our everyday existence to think about some ‘academic questions’.
One subject – which is about as far away from everyday conversations as you can get – is that of maritime boundaries, that is the boundary between countries that are separated by the sea.


‘Who cares?’, you might say (and many of you probably currently thinking it). But in the case of one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, the newly-independent country of Timor-Leste (which many know as East Timor), the boundary between it and Australia is a matter of crucial importance (‘life or death’ is not too strong a way of putting it) to virtually all Timorese. It’s also a matter of some significance to many Australians too.

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Moreover it’s an issue where the actions of Australia, in the view of those who have been involved, have been disgraceful and irresponsible.


Why the issue is of significance is that the boundary determines who owns, and derives the profit from, the large reserves of oil and gas that lie under the sea between the two countries (the Timor Sea, off the north-west coast of Australia).


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There’s disagreement between the two countries over where the boundary should be drawn. Australia has in effect recognised a boundary that is a continuation of a boundary agreed to with Indonesia back in 1972. This boundary runs close to the Indonesian part of Timor and is considerably closer to Timor than Australia. (Incidentally, there are some in Indonesia who think they were conned in 1972 and rue the day such a boundary was ever agreed to.)


However, Timor – in line with the prevailing international convention and practice – claims that the boundary should be drawn halfway between the two countries.


All this is significant because there are some very substantial oil and gas deposits lying closer to Timor than Australia but within the boundary that Australia effectively recognises. The sharing of the revenues from these deposits has been ‘negotiated’ between Timor and Australia. But while Australia claims to have been generous, Timor claims to have been elbowed out and obliged to share revenues that are rightfully all its own.

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It’s made worse by the way Australia – very cynically in the eyes of some – arbitrarily withdrew its recognition of international law on maritime boundaries just before Timor gained independence back in 2002. ‘We’d rather ‘negotiate’ the sharing of revenue from the oil and gas one to one’, Australia effectively said – though it knew it would have the advantage in negotiations seeing as Timor was so reliant on oil and gas revenue and would probably take what it was offered. Why not let it be decided by a court in accordance with international law? Because, as somebody put it, you don’t take anything to court if you think you’re going to lose’.


And the icing on the cake for Australia in its ‘negotiations’ that it managed to have written into the treaty that was eventually agreed to that the whole issue of a maritime boundary wouldn’t be raised by Timor for a period of fifty years.


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(If you would like to read a more detailed account see if you can find a book by journalist Paul Cleary titled Shakedown: Australia’s grab for Timor oil’.)


Yes, it’s an ‘academic’ (and very complex) question. But one whose resolution is going to affect the future prosperity of a whole nation and its people.


image: U.S. Coast Guard