To do that, he will need to secure boundaries with his neighbours, Indonesia and Australia. In the case of Indonesia, there are three potentially controversial boundaries: in the Ombai Strait between the enclave of Oecussi and Indonesia’s Kepulauan Alor; in the Wetar Strait between East Timor proper and Indonesia’s Pulau Wetar; and two lateral boundaries in the Timor Sea.
As far as Australia is concerned, the boundaries are more straightforward. They depend on the ability to delineate the Timor Sea between continental Australia and Timor. However, since the boundary passes over major oil fields, they are important.
In 1989, Indonesia and Australia agreed on a boundary between their two countries. Under the Timor Gap Treaty, they defined an area that was known as Area A, which included the oil provinces.
In 2002, after East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, Australia and East Timor signed the Timor Sea Treaty. It established the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) in the same region as the old Area A. This did nothing to settle the boundary. It merely marked out a joint co-operation zone for oil prospecting.
The JPDA is a region where both countries manage oil and gas exploration. The resulting revenue is shared between the two.
Superficially at least, it seems that East Timor got the worst of this deal. Before the signing of the treaty, East Timor had argued for a permanent maritime boundary, equidistant between the two coastlines.
If Australia had agreed to this, most of the oil and gas fields, which are now in the JPDA, would have been on East Timor’s side of the boundary.
There is some opinion that the eastern and western sides of the JPDA should be used as the maritime boundary lines between Indonesia and East Timor.
However, the JPDA is only a delineation of the seabed. It was an agreement made between Indonesia and Australia in the 1970s, and was never intended as a maritime boundary. Furthermore, it may not suit either East Timor or Australia thirty years on.
East Timor has not yet started maritime boundary delimitation with Indonesia. From the Indonesian perspective, the delay is tied up with the pending settlement of land boundaries between the two countries. Indonesia and East Timor have agreed on about 96 percent of their land boundaries in terms of length.
Unfortunately, the unresolved segment includes the terminal points, where the boundary hits the north and south coasts. These must serve as the starting points for the maritime boundaries between the two states. Thus, negotiation of maritime boundaries cannot start until the land boundaries are fully determined.
This is complicated by the fact that the Indonesia state mapping agency, Badan Koordinasi Survei dan Pemetaan Nasional (Bakosurtanal), is currently revising its baseline. This is the reference from which its maritime jurisdiction is measured, and is essential in constructing the boundary line. The revision mainly covers the area around Pulau Timor and the Celebes Sea. This is the location of the hydrocarbon-rich Ambalat Block, which is currently the subject of a separate dispute with Malaysia.
Indonesia, a nation of islands, has invaluable experience negotiating maritime boundaries. Negotiation with East Timor should have been much quicker. But the area in question, to the north of Pulau Timor, does not contain oil and gas deposits, so the Indonesians may not see the establishment of maritime boundaries as urgent. For Indonesia, the most urgent dispute is over the Ambalat Block.
Jakarta and Dili appear to have difference views concerning the urgency of maritime boundary delimitation. In East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, the former prime minister, called maritime boundary delimitation a matter of ‘life or death’. His government passed the Maritime Zone Act and established the Timor Sea Office in support of this notion.
However, the election, and the riots of last year may yet bring significant changes in the direction of East Timorese government policy, including that relating to maritime boundaries.
The Ombai and Wetar Straits are neither busy nor strategically economic for commercial navigation. This may have led the Indonesian government to conclude that there are no strong economic or security reasons for urgent maritime boundary delimitation.
But oil, gas and navigation are not the only matters to consider. A lot of people in areas such as Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara Province depend on fishing for a living. Without clear delimitation of territorial sea and exclusive economic zones, fishermen will have no idea of the limits of fishing areas.
In addition, the emergence of a new world-wide approach to coastal zone management — the marine cadastre — requires the delimitation of maritime boundaries.
As an archipelagic state, in which around two thirds of its territory are maritime areas, Indonesia needs to seriously pay attention to maritime boundaries.
This is not an issue confined to Timor. According to an article in the Indonesian Kompas newspaper, (3 March), some 70 percent of the Indonesian EEZ has not been officially recognised. For Indonesia, it is time for action.
The writer is a lecturer in the Department of Geodesy and Geomatic Engineering at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. Currently, he is a UN-Nippon research fellow in Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea at the Australian Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong. He is also a contributor to a recent book: East Timor: Beyond Independence.