On 20 May 2022, Timor-Leste will celebrate its 20th birthday. The ‘Restoration of Independence Day’ event is sure to be a grand occasion when Asia’s youngest nation, which occupies half of the island of Timor between Australia and Indonesia, marks two decades since it left behind war, invasions by the Indonesians and the Japanese, and colonial rule by the Portuguese. But this celebration won’t just be about looking back over 20 years of independence and progress. It will be about looking forward to a bright future filled with prosperity, freedom and vastly improved infrastructure – with one massive, state-of-the-art port shining like a beacon at the forefront of the country’s major current developments.
Timor-Leste is a Portuguese-speaking country which, following its independence in 2002, has experienced a slow development in its infrastructure – an infrastructure that was heavily damaged by anti-independence militia groups in 1999. But now, the nation – home to just under 1.3 million people and rich in offshore oil and gas – is in the process of diversifying its economy and improving its infrastructure. Leaders have been looking to strengthen homegrown businesses, including in the capital Dili, as they have also been working to improve the infrastructure both inside and outside the city. And this includes all of the frequently congested port facilities – principally those at Tibar Bay Port.
Tibar Bay, which sits on the shores about 12 kilometres to the west along the coastline from Dili, was first earmarked for development and private sector investment in the early 2010s with a view to it achieving rapid and sustainable growth. The project set sail with a financial close in August 2018 and work began in July of the following year. Now it’s all well underway on a new US$206 million (MOP 1.6 billion) – predicted by some to go up to US$490 million (MOP 3.9 billion) once all works are done – deep-water port which will handle up to 350,000 containers annually – predicted by some to go up to more than 750,000 eventually – and will have a new 630-metre-long pier and a raft of new buildings. It will be a multipurpose facility, handling all types of cargo, including containers and vehicles and it will also be home to an access channel and berth 16 metres deep so that it can receive large vessels. It’s the largest infrastructure project ever to be carried out in Timor-Leste and it isn’t only the local people who have been working on the site. Chinese workers have also been involved from the start.
For nearly two years, workers from China and Timor-Leste have been toiling together daily to construct this massive infrastructure project in the natural sheltered bay of Tibar that the country’s government hopes will put an end to future bottlenecks around the port. Making sure everything is on track and on time – a task made even more demanding by the COVID-19 pandemic – is Wang Wei, country manager for Timor-Leste for China Harbour Engineering Construction (CHEC), one of the construction companies working on the site. CHEC, founded in 1980, is itself a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company and it won the tender to join the project in 2017 and started work in 2019.
Wang tells us he is particularly proud of the technical work that CHEC workers have been undertaking at Tibar Bay Port – complex even for such a construction giant from China. But he says he’s also proud of the fact that out of the roughly 800 CHEC staff members on the site – including the management team, technicians and labourers – local workers from Timor-Leste make up the majority, which equates to around 60 per cent of the total.
In 2016, the Tibar Bay project was awarded by the Timor-Leste government to French company Bolloré Ports. The European giant was given the job of designing, constructing, owning and operating the port before it is due to pass ownership back to the government in 30 years’ time under a development basis known as design-build-finance-operate-transfer (DBFOT). The new port, when it opens next year, will help to ease congestion on the seas around Tibar Bay and Dili, as well as providing access to bigger vessels which is expected, in turn, to reduce import and export costs in the country. Bolloré was key in recommending CHEC’s involvement in the project as it is one of its global business partners.
The fact that Bolloré and CHEC – among other international companies – are part of the project is a milestone for Timor-Leste as it marks the Asia Pacific country’s first-ever large-scale infrastructure public-private partnership arrangement (PPP). It also marks the biggest direct foreign investment for one large-scale infrastructure project in the history of the country. In fact, it’s been a good learning curve for the government in attracting large-scale foreign investment and it’s also highlighted the strong links between China and Timor-Leste. Wang says: “Once the project has proved to be a success, the valuable experience in planning, tendering, transaction, operation and management will be a very good example for similar large-scale infrastructure projects in Timor-Leste in the future, such as at Dili Airport (Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport) and others.”
“The Tibar Bay Port project reflects the high expectations of the people and government of Timor-Leste over the past few decades.”
The Tibar Bay Port PPP has already earned regional plaudits and it hasn’t even finished being built yet. In 2019, it was named as a ‘winning deal’ in the Asia-Pacific region by infrastructure development and finance news and data service IJGlobal at its annual awards ceremony. Wang says: “The Tibar Bay Port project reflects the high expectations of the Timorese people and government over the past few decades and deserves the extraordinary efforts of CHEC for a successful completion.” In terms of engineering, Wang admits that Tibar Bay ‘is one of the most difficult port projects ever undertaken’ by the Chinese construction giant. This, he says, is because of the ‘very rare’ geological conditions at the site and the high chance of earthquakes in the region. In spite of any geological difficulties, though, CHEC is expecting its building work to be completed by the early part of next year.
COVID-19 has also been another challenge for the workers but Wang claims that there hasn’t been a single case reported in the construction teams since the outbreak of the pandemic. “All our members have been very disciplined,” he says, “and have adhered to the company emergency response plan and the code of joint practice.” That code, he adds, was agreed with both Bolloré and the government. And he says that the project has progressed ‘non-stop’ during the pandemic with three chartered flights ferrying workers to the site from China since construction began. He adds that the teams have been ‘trying very hard’ to ensure sufficient manpower on the site to keep construction going.
Started with a bang
When work kicked off in 2019, the first move was to start blasting nearby quarries to collect construction materials. In a statement from the Chinese embassy in Timor-Leste at the time, the Chinese ambassador to the country, Xiao Jianguo, explained that the use of explosives was a special case. He said that because there was a general ban on explosives in the country, special permission had been given by the Timor-Leste government to CHEC to use them which, he noted, was ‘essential and critical to ensure on-time success of the whole project’. He also noted that there were about 20 Chinese firms operating in areas related to infrastructure in Timor-Leste at the time. He said: “Infrastructure is the key area of China-Timor-Leste practical co-operation in which Chinese enterprises have actively and widely participated.” He added that ‘Chinese companies enjoy good management, expertise and advanced technologies in the construction of urban buildings, roads and bridges, and airports and seaports, having made great contributions to the infrastructure development’ in Timor-Leste.
Xiao also said in the statement that China had provided ‘much assistance’ to Timor-Leste’s infrastructure over the past 17 years of ‘China-Timor-Leste diplomatic relations’. He listed projects like the Nicolau Lobato Presidential Palace, which opened in 2009 in honour of a national hero, as ‘signposts of friendship’ between the two countries. Construction of the palace was financed by China. He also cited ongoing co-operative projects, including a digital TV initiative between both nations that will enhance Timor-Leste’s media and television industry. “Co-operation in this area between our two countries is of enormous potential,” said the ambassador. “I hope that Chinese companies can seize this opportunity and hope the practical co-operation between us can be further strengthened so as to improve the infrastructure and people’s well-being in Timor-Leste within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.” The Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in countries and organisations across the world.
Thanks to much investment, including in major port and airport infrastructure projects, Timor-Leste’s economy is expected to grow by 2.5 per cent this year, as predicted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU foresees public investment focused on agriculture, tourism and social sectors, in addition to infrastructure such as the Tibar Bay Port project. Joaquim Amaral, Timor-Leste’s Co-ordinating Minister of Economic Affairs, expects the port project at Tibar Bay to ‘bring many benefits to the Timorese economy’. These benefits, he tells us, go well beyond the amount of foreign investment into the port, which he estimates at around US$200 million (MOP 1.6 billion) until it is fully given back to the government. They will include ‘avoiding the cost of delays and the diversion of cargo due to congestion’ at Dili Port, a nearby major port in the capital city, allowing for ‘bigger ships’ to dock, which he foresees as bringing ‘savings on freight costs due to economies of scale’. Amaral also predicts that the project will herald the development of potential industrial parks around the port. And he adds that the redevelopment of Dili Port ‘is currently being considered’, which he predicts will elevate the ‘quality of life in Dili city centre’.
Amaral says that the Tibar Bay Port project was outlined in a major strategic development plan released by the Timor-Leste government in 2011. In it Dili Port was highlighted as having ‘become an economic bottleneck’ as its existing infrastructure, built by the country’s former Portuguese administration, is no longer fit for the demands of today’s international container shipping industry and does not allow modern large container ships access to the port. He adds that Dili Port is still the main entry and exit point for goods to a country whose population is expected to more than double by 2040. Amaral confirms that operations are due to start next year. He says that when that happens, the area around it will also start to develop. “With the development of Tibar Bay,” he says, “the area around the port can be turned into an economic hub, attracting new industries and businesses to set foot in Timor-Leste, [thus] generating employment opportunities.”
A new age
Danilo Afonso Henriques, Timor-Leste’s delegate to Macao’s Forum for Economic Trade Co-operation between China and the Portuguese-speaking Countries – better known as Forum Macao – expects the Tibar Bay project to add to the young nation’s skills and competitiveness. But the project, he points out, is also part of a larger strategy of upgrading and building infrastructure to support the mobility of people and goods throughout Timo-Leste. Being ‘widely dispersed in a large geographical area’, he says, the country’s population will also benefit from the ongoing upgrading and construction of its national road network, as well as its electricity network, airports, irrigation systems, renewable energies and tourism industry. He says that those ‘elements’ as well as ‘new developments such as proposed industrial parks’ should ‘create a competitiveness and opportunities for Timor-Leste to explore various economic markets’ with neighbouring countries, across Southeast Asia or even with Macao through the forum he represents.
Henriques says that ‘a synergy exists not only between the size and volume of production and consumption of possible niche markets, as well as historical links, between Timor-Leste and Macao’. He adds that there’s a ‘desire and preference’ for products from Timor-Leste in Macao, particularly agricultural ones ‘which are organic’. He says that good examples of this include the Dili brand coffee that’s produced and exported by a Chinese entrepreneur and is available in Macao, as well as a number of aromatic and therapeutic oils that are imported into Macao for the local market and for mainland China.
According to Henriques, Macao ‘provides an excellent platform’ through Forum Macao ‘to engage on a range of issues, not only in areas of commercial and trade interest but also in human capacity development, where many Timorese have received training, as well as closer people-to-people relations through cultural understanding’. He adds: “Tibar Bay Port underlines Timor-Leste’s aspirations, its development growth in the years since its restoration of independence and our nation’s hope for a prosperous future.” Indeed, if you stand on the seafront at Tibar Bay right now, listening to the construction going on behind you, and look out to sea, you can almost see the future in the distance. A future filled with massive container vessels, improved infrastructure, a prosperous economy and a nation that’s proud of its accomplishments over the past two decades.
Made in China
One local worker on the Tibar Bay Port project was Timor-Leste’s first scholarship recipient to ever graduate in China.
China-Timor-Leste relations at Tibar Bay Port are no more apparent than with Jónio da Anunciação. The CHEC assistant general manager is a Timor-Leste local who left his home more than a decade ago to study in China before returning and working with a number of Chinese businesses thanks to his inimitable skills. He later amassed enough experience to join CHEC and work on the mammoth port project.
Anunciação, who once lived in a naval base in his home country during a time of political crisis, won a scholarship in 2006 to study a tourism management degree at the Beijing International Studies University (BISU) alongside two other students from Timor-Leste who went to BISU and Hangzhou University. In fact, the trio was the first group of locals to ever be granted a scholarship by the Chinese government. The other two students, however, failed to graduate so in June 2011, Anunciação became the first Timor-Leste scholarship recipient to ever graduate in China.
He studied in Beijing for five years and says it was a positive experience. “The success I achieved,” says Anunciação, “was in part down to my hard work and in part down to my good relations with my local Chinese friends because they were always willing to help me with classes.” He says he worked with the Timor-Leste Embassy in Beijing during and after his studies, helping with his nation’s participation in the 2008 Olympic Games, as well as the Shanghai International Expo and Beijing International Tourism Expo (BITE). After graduating, he did an internship for a short while at the embassy.
In 2011, Anunciação returned to Timor-Leste to work with Chinese state-owned nuclear power engineering firm China Nuclear Industry 22nd Construction Co. (CNI22) on a power plant project. He had learned Mandarin so was both a supervisor and interpreter. In 2014, he won another scholarship in China, so went back to study for a master’s degree in business and administration. In 2015, he returned to Dili and worked as a public relations chief for China Railway First Group (CRFG) on a highway project. He later worked for another Chinese company on a sea cucumber cultivation initiative before joining CHEC in 2018. Since then, he has become a key part of the port construction team.
Anunciação says that so far the Tibar Bay Port project has been an ‘excellent experience’. He says his work includes ‘keeping good relations’ with government bodies, local companies and other organisations involved in the project. He says: “CHEC gives me the freedom to do the negotiations and discussions with public and private entities based on the company’s rules. I can say that with CHEC, I have learned lots.” Anunciação adds that CHEC ‘knows how to capacitate and increase the local people’s knowledge’ just like educators in China did for him all those years ago.