Background Briefing by Senior State Department Official on Timor-Leste
MODERATOR: We are en route from Beijing to Dili. Here to talk a little bit about what the Secretary hopes to accomplish in Timor Leste is [Senior State Department Official], hereafter Senior State Department Official. Go ahead, [Senior State Department Official].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll just go quickly, you guys – then if you have any particular questions.
So you’ve read some of the background on Timor Leste. This is the first Secretary of State to visit in the 10 years since Timor has become independent. Its birth pangs were very violent 10 years ago as it broke away from Indonesia. And it – the set of circumstances by which Timor became independent was the leadership in Indonesia suggesting that they would be prepared for a referendum to allow this to take place.
When it was clear that Timor preferred independence, there was a spasm of violence. The UN, others, were deeply involved. The Australians and the New Zealanders played a very important role in trying to bring stability in the immediate aftermath. It was one of the largest projects of the United Nations, of ASEAN and others over the course of the last 10 years, and the United States has been deeply involved in the nation-building project there.
The country has just experienced a successful election. It – we’ll have a chance, the Secretary will have a chance, to speak with both the President and the Prime Minister. It, as you know, is a former Portuguese colony, so it has remarkably little infrastructure. It has some substantial disadvantages: very little transportation, very little in the way of infrastructure, and almost no capacity for English. So it’s a country that the very elite speak --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Pardon me?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) capacity for what?
MODERATOR: For English.
QUESTION: English – not very much capacity for English. So the very elite speak Portuguese, which is not as common in ASEAN and elsewhere. A very small group of people speak English. And then there are a whole host of ethnic languages overall. So one of the biggest efforts underway in ASEAN is to try to build sort of a younger group of people that have English capacity.
You’ll be struck that, when you arrive there, there’s a lot of new building. Much of that building, again, has been brought either by international organizations or China. One of the few areas where the United States and China have actually worked quite well together in terms of joint projects has been in Timor. I think we have been a strong supporter of Timor ultimately being embedded in an institution like ASEAN. But to date, many ASEAN countries are not supportive of that yet because they’re essentially quite weak and they have a long road to go overall.
When we’re there, we’re going to have a chance to, obviously, congratulate them on their – both their new election and their 10-year anniversary. We’re going to go out to a coffee plantation. One of the areas where the country has really started to come back is in the coffee plantation, coffee growing. They work very closely with Starbucks and a couple other coffee chains. You’ll get a chance to sample some of the – it is a very distinctive, very rich coffee grown into the hills there.
I think Timor is still plagued by substantial violence. And we have a number of programs to support the country as a whole, but it does have a long way to go. And its relationship with Indonesia is still complicated. And others in ASEAN want them to be on a slower path towards joining the organization as a whole.
Why don’t I stop there, and if you guys have any questions, I’d be happy to do it.
MODERATOR: Let’s do questions just on Timor (inaudible).
QUESTION: I have a question about the violence. You said there’s still substantial violence. Is that related to the same militia groups who were involved in the revolution in ’99? And why – because, as that was mostly independence-related, why 10-years later is there still militia violence?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There are those that were more aligned with the mainland, with Indonesia. There are different groups that played out against each other. There are a number of different language groups inside the country even now, and a very substantial political fracturing. And so, over the course of the last 10 years, there have been a number of periods where the Prime Minister/President was not able to leave the country because they were under votes of no confidence and the like.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) is it U.S.-joint programs, you said?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, a number of programs. They’re mostly small – AID, women’s programs, to support education, health, some of the things that you see, frankly, in some of the Pacific Islands. In many respects, it’s closer to some of the challenges that we face in the Pacific Islands than a higher standard of living that you would more normally see in ASEAN-related countries. And that’s one of the reasons why, for instance, that Singapore has not been at all supportive of Timor joining yet and they have openly gone against a number of countries, including the United States, saying they’re just not ready.
QUESTION: This comes right after the U.S. has started moving Marines to Darwin. Does that give a more strategic focus? This is right across the sea from Darwin, Australia. Does this make East Timor more strategic? Is there anything to do with (inaudible) from East Timor in the security realm?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, not really, I don’t think. I mean, it is true that when the spasm of violence in ’99 – 1998, most of the forces that went up to try to peacekeep there deployed from Darwin. Right? Australian and New Zealand forces. But I don’t think there’s that much relationship. The Indonesians, as you know, are focused on it, but not so much with relation to Timor, mostly related to Papua. Right?
QUESTION: Just a quick one.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I gather that you probably would have told us if she was – the Secretary isn’t going to announce any major or any even minor new aid or money?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I think she’ll highlight a little bit one of the – again, one of the areas that we have seen our ability to work in sort of joint projects is with China, so we’ll talk a little bit about that. These are --
QUESTION: They’re probably (inaudible) --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. They’re not big programs, no.
QUESTION: On that question of Timor not being in ASEAN and you guys wanting to put it there, is one reason because you’re worried that as an outlier in the region it’s – it may be sort of vulnerable or susceptible to China or other forces?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It really doesn’t have enough – it’s s small, very, very small place so it doesn’t have very much strategic significance in that respect. I think our biggest reason is that it needs a lot of assistance, and ASEAN has, frankly, enormous capacity. But they made a decision 10 years ago when they started to expand, adding countries that are really weak and poor, and it’s put an enormous burden on ASEAN as a whole. They really don’t feel like Timor is ready, that it needs much more help before it can play at a level that other countries can.
And I mean, I’ll give you just an example just so you guys – sometimes when we meet with them in some of the forums, they only have, like, two or three or four people that can converse effectively in English, and so they’ve got to have Portuguese interpreters. There’s no other Portuguese speakers in ASEAN and in Asia at all, so just it’s very tough.
QUESTION: There’s one or two in Macao.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Pardon me?
QUESTION: One or two in Macao.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, exactly. Macao. The two Portuguese – so you’ve got Mozambique, Angola, Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, Macao, and that was the Portuguese global empire. Right?
MODERATOR: Back on the question of money, she will announce $6.5 million in scholarships for Timorese to study in the U.S.
QUESTION: I’m curious to hear more about the Chinese cooperation. Why are you able to cooperate so effectively on this?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s – I mean, it’s interesting. I think probably because it’s not in ASEAN. I think that when we’ve laid out areas where we’d be prepared to work with them, this was one of the areas that they said yes to. I think they want to see how it goes as well, and I think they would view probably the stakes to be not terribly high.
QUESTION: Is this an infrastructure project? Is it an aid program?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, there are some aid – there is some infrastructure --
QUESTION: Specifically what you’re doing with the Chinese?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Chinese – much of their work is capital. They’ve built a lot – you’ll see a number of big government buildings that they have built.
QUESTION: What about where we work with them?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Where we work with them, it’s going to be in mostly – some infrastructure but also some capacity building as well, education and the like.
QUESTION: In those projects, is that – are you getting the kind of visibility that the Secretary was talking about, sort of --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Not yet.
QUESTION: Not into what the Chinese are actually – how they run their operation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t – in almost any environment that we work with – and we don’t get very much transparency with respect to their goals, how much money they’re spending, who does the work, everything, and that’s one of the things that we have sought to do in almost every place that we’ve worked with them, not only when we’re working with them bilaterally but when they are – excuse me, guys – but when they’re working independently. They have put a lot of money in Timor, but much of it doesn’t have – we don’t have very much visibility into.
MODERATOR: Okay, thanks –
QUESTION: Following on that, what makes it different from the work in the Pacific islands that China is doing? I mean, why is this a successful collaboration but the U.S. has issues with Chinese investment in the Pacific islands?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we have some of the same issues. The question is whether we’ve been able to find common ground in working together. So for instance, over the last four years we’ve tried very hard to say hey, let’s work with China, for instance, on climate issues, on issues related to energy efficiency. And we’ve had a lot of trouble getting that kind of traction yet. I mean, it’s possible that over time that we’ll get that. And we’ve raised some concerns of the things that the Chinese have built in the Pacific. So they’ve built a lot of very large buildings that are extremely energy inefficient that the countries have problems heating or cooling mostly. And so what we’ve tried to say is hey, let’s work together on strategies for development that are not so energy efficient that take advantage of these incredible both wind and solar power, which are unprecedented. It’s the least use of those technologies of anywhere else on the planet but the greatest potential.
MODERATOR: Okay, good. Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right, guys. Thank you.