The year 2017 in Timor-Leste was dominated by a round of national elections and a major breakthrough in the country's long-running dispute [End Page 539] with Australia over maritime boundaries. In the latter part of the year, a newly installed fretilin-led minority government proved unable to pass its program in Parliament, which saw the country head back to the polls in May 2018. (fretilin is the acronym for one of Timor-Leste's major political parties: the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor.) A new maritime boundary and revenue-sharing treaty with Australia negotiated over 2017 was signed in early March 2018.
The year started unexpectedly with a joint announcement that the government of Timor-Leste would terminate the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (cmats) with Australia (Australian Treaty Series 2007). The decision, which Australia did not contest, opened the way for progress in boundary negotiations. Aside from sharing the proceeds of undersea resources, the key feature of cmats was a fifty-year moratorium on boundary negotiations in favor of a series of revenue-sharing agreements, known as "provisional arrangements" under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or unclos.
Having vigorously defended cmats as recently as 2016, several factors explain the change in Australia's position. The 2006 treaty had been tarnished by allegations that Australia had spied on the East Timorese negotiating team in 2004 (smh 2013). Timor-Leste had then challenged the treaty, invoking the Vienna Convention's principle that negotiations should take place in "good faith." Equally significantly, in April 2016 the government of Timor-Leste initiated compulsory conciliation proceedings under unclos with the aim of concluding permanent maritime boundaries with Australia. Australia's opening legal gambit—a jurisdictional claim that the cmats treaty had already settled the border dispute—was dismissed by the conciliation commission in September 2016, which found that Australia's obligation to settle the boundary survived the treaty and its purported moratorium (unclos Conciliation Commission 2016). Having lost this argument, Australia had little further practical use for cmats. An additional factor was the dispute between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea, which raised the regional profile of international law in boundary disputes. In that case, Australia urged China to follow the rule of law, as represented by the decision of the tribunal formed under unclos. The contrast with Canberra's own behavior—its refusal to discuss a boundary in the Timor Sea and its withdrawal from the dispute-settlement provisions of unclos shortly before East Timorese independence in 2002—had created a public relations problem for Australia. For example, the powerful US House Armed Services Committee's National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 was specifically amended to encourage resolution of the maritime-boundary dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste. The committee noted that negotiations would send "a positive signal to other states in the region regarding adherence to a rules-based international order," highlighting the "potential security benefits" likely to flow from a peaceful resolution of the dispute (US House Armed Services Committee 2017, 2). There is little question that this shift in Washington [End Page 540] signaled extra pressure on Canberra to resolve the matter within the unclos conciliation process. These negotiations reached a partial conclusion in September 2017, discussed later in this review.
The 2017 round of elections occurred in the wake of a government formed in extraordinary circumstances in early 2015, when the former independence movement leader Xanana Gusmão handed over the prime ministership to an opposition fretilin figure, Rui Araújo. Though best seen as a power-sharing executive rather than a formal government of national unity, this informal "grand coalition" between Timor-Leste's two largest parties—the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (cnrt) and fretilin—was a remarkable development, given the bitter tensions between the parties as recently as 2012. Described by a senior cnrt minister as a transition from "belligerent democracy to consensus democracy" (Pereira 2014), this powerful combination left President José Maria Vasconcelos (better known by his nom de guerre, Taur Matan Ruak) as the closest thing to an effective opposition. Ruak did...