Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s continental shelf: Australia’s Timor Sea maritime boundary

Maritime law Resources industry Treaties International relations Australia Timor Sea Timor-Leste

Coveting a neighbour’s continental shelf is a trend that has caused diplomatic rifts and become a contentious issue since the early 1960s. There are some recent cases where coastal and/or island States have experienced the problem in regional seas, for example, in the Arctic Ocean, the East and South China Seas, the Falklands Basin and the Timor Sea. Perhaps this ruffling of diplomatic feathers relating to the continental shelf may be partially attributed to select provisions contained in the Third United Nations Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (the 1982 Convention), in particular, the delimitation of a maritime boundary for the purpose of allocating jurisdictional limits to access marine resources.

This narrative focuses on the Timor Sea and the sovereignty issue over the part of the continental shelf that is adjacent to Australia’s northern coast and which has been coveted by both Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

This study opines that the Government of Australia was pressured to forfeit its ‘seabed rights’ in the name of ‘equitable principles’ and ‘social justice’, regardless of the fact that geographical reality and the ‘special circumstances of the case’ that are perceived to apply in this instance were totally disregarded. That said, Australia had apparently nailed itself into the “coffin-shaped” Timor Gap Treaty’s Zone of Co-operation over the continental shelf issue in 1989 and again on 14 March 1997, when it signed in Perth an Agreement with Indonesia relating to certain maritime boundaries. Finally, successive governments were persuaded, even pressured, to accede to demands from Timor-Leste for a larger proportion of Australia’s continental shelf and access to the hydrocarbon reserves contained therein, in agreements during 2002, 2006, 2013 and 2018.

Key points:

  • Australia and Timor-Leste are both Parties to the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, which came into force between them on
  • 2 February 2013.
  • An Agreement to formalise the maritime boundaries alignment in the Timor Sea was signed by the two countries on 6 March 2018.
  • The alignment of the maritime boundary is only partially determined by that Agreement, Article 7(1) of which makes provision for the establishment of the “Greater Sunrise Special Regime”.
  • As of July 2019, the Agreement is yet to enter into force.
  • The development plans for the Greater Sunrise hydrocarbon reserve, of which the Timor-Leste Government now has a controlling share, raise concerns for potential operators.
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