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PacNet #23 – The Eagle and the Dragon in the Land of Sandalwood: US and China Build Soft Power in Timor-Leste

After 400 years of inept Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) gained its independence in 2002 following a UN-sponsored referendum. Since then, the small territory has witnessed an intense competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While Timor-Leste has not been considered as strategically important for either country, both see their presence in the territory as a barometer for their global competition. A US Defense Department official noted: “If we cannot maintain a respectful presence in Timor where we have the support of two of our oldest allies, Australia and Portugal, how can we expect to do so in much more difficult places? This is embarrassing.”