Timor Gap arbitration begins in The Hague

The long-running dispute between Australia and Timor Leste concerning maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea is being played out in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague starting Aug. 29.

Timor Leste triggered the compulsory conciliation for the disputed territory in the so-called Timor Gap under the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in April.

The Timor Gap holds natural gas fields with resources estimated to be worth $40 billion.

Previously, Australia has refused to negotiate a permanent sea boundary with Timor Leste and temporary revenue-sharing arrangements were agreed by the two countries in 2002 and again in 2006.

Timor Leste says the 2006 treaty should be abandoned and charges the Australian government with illegal bugging of the Timor Leste cabinet rooms during negotiation that gave the Australians an unfair advantage.

The Hague commission doesn’t have the ability to force Australia to agree to any boundaries that may be prescribed by the court’s panel of commissioners, however there are indications that the Australian government may be softening its position.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is reported as saying that Australia considers the decision of the compulsory conciliation binding on both sides.

Another interpretation of this statement is that the Australians are confident its argument that the 2002 and 2006 treaties are valid in international law will prevail.

However, it is likely in the broader sense that any decision made by the court in this dispute could have repercussions by setting a precedent for other ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

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