Tiny Timor-Leste Needs Gas and China's All Too Eager to Help

(Bloomberg, Suai, 28 August 2019) Colonized by Portugal, invaded by Indonesia, suckered by Australia, Timor-Leste doesn’t need another abusive relationship. But the clock is now ticking for Timor-Leste to find international funding for a $12 billion energy project so work can start before its existing oil cash cow — a separate nearby gas field — becomes defunct as soon as 2021. Royal Dutch Shell Plc and ConocoPhillips have given up on the project after more than two decades, selling their stakes back to the government last year. Twenty years on from a referendum that brought independence from Indonesia after a brutal quarter-century conflict killed an estimated 100,000 people, Timor-Leste’s birthing pains are evident everywhere. With almost half its 1.2 million people living in poverty, the aging war heroes still in charge are now betting big on a risky energy project that could draw one of the world’s youngest nations into a wider geopolitical tussle between the West and China. Fitch Solutions estimates the project, which has been under negotiation for more than a decade, has enough reserves to yield $50 billion in revenue at today’s prices—more than 15 times the country’s gross domestic product. But there’s one big problem: President Gusmao, 73, has insisted the project is built onshore to create much-needed jobs. For energy giants, that’s unfeasible because it requires laying pipeline across a trough to depths of 3,300 meters. That’s making the U.S. nervous China will use debt as a way in to bolster its regional footprint. Timor Gap, which is responsible for developing the on-shore part of Tasi Mane, says it’s arranging $9 billion of the $12 billion needed to fund the Greater Sunrise project, and it’s agnostic about where the money will come from. It’s denied media reports that the funds would come from Export-Import Bank of China. See also Timor-Leste Should Beware China's Belt and Road.