I am sometimes asked why it is that we in the Timor Sea Forum are not calling for the maritime boundary to be settled between Timor-Leste and Indonesia, after all Timor-Leste has two maritime neighbours and neither of them have settled permanent boundaries.
The basic answer is that as Australians we see our responsibility to call on the Government of Australia to begin negotiating the final boundary and to do so in conformity with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, not allowing the current provisional arrangements "jeopardise or hamper the reaching of the final agreement" [Article 83]
Having said that, it is clear the boundary with Indonesia in the Timor Sea will be very important to Timor-Leste. The position of those lateral boundaries in the east and west will determine ownership of significant natural resources, particularly the Greater Sunrise field which will be in cooee of any eastern lateral.
Some commentators arguing for the status quo, including ex-DFAT Stephen Grenville, have begun advancing the idea that a median line arrangement with Australia will result in Timor-Leste loosing all of Greater Sunrise to Indonesia. I have two things to say about this, firstly "it ain't necessarily so" and secondly this assertion feels like a patronising approach to push the Timorese "back into the box" - i.e. don't mess with things.
In any case the message coming from the top in Timor-Leste is clear and is one based on principle: "We ask for nothing more than our maritime rights under international law".
The good news is that the wheels are turning with respect to maritime boundary negotiations with Indonesia. And the very good news is that both parties have agreed to conduct negotiations guided by the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. [UNCLOS]
This is precisely what Timor-Leste [and the Timor Sea Forum] is asking of the Government of Australia: begin negotiations and do so guided by the principles of international law.
The Prime Minister of Timor-Leste Dr. Rui Araújo made his first Official Visit to Indonesia in August this year and in a press statement after their meeting Indonesian President Joko Widodo said the leaders had determined to expeditiously resolve maritime borders between their countries. He explained they will begin focussing on the northern waters and then move to the south. Responding, Prime Minister Araújo said that the Government of Timor-Leste “is ready to commence the discussion on the maritime boundary delimitation with Indonesia in accordance with UNCLOS 1982”.
Those negotiations have now begun.
According to a Timorese Government media release from the 23rd of September, consultations began on the 18th of September "marking the start of bilateral talks to address all maritime areas between the two States" and confirmed that both "want to delimit a maritime boundary in a accordance with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS]".
Some Australian supporters of the status quo, including Alexander Downer, have put the position that Timor-Leste should not make any sudden moves in the area of maritime boundaries in fear that it could cause "the great unravelling", in other words that opening any negotiations will open a can of worms with Australia and Indonesia around the 1972 Sea bed boundary.
There are good arguments as to why this will not happen - but regardless it is "too late".
Indonesia and Timor-Leste have committed to moving forward to delimit their maritime boundaries and to do so in accordance with international law.