Home to a population of 1.2 million, Timor-Leste relies on oil and gas revenues from the JPDA for the majority of its state budget, and the World Bank has long warned the middle-income country to diversify its economy away from energy.
The country was a Portuguese colony until pro-independence fighters declared victory in 1975. Shortly thereafter, Indonesia claimed the region as its 27th province, paving the way for a violent conflict between the Indonesian military and separatist forces. It was only in 2002 that East Timor became a sovereign state once Jakarta relinquished control.
"Development of the Greater Sunrise gas field is the key to the economic future of Timor-Leste," Rebecca Strating, lecturer at Melbourne's La Trobe University, argued in a note last week.
PM Araujo is using the conciliation as part of a broader diplomacy strategy to pressure the Turnbull government, using activist-style rhetoric that positions the dispute as the final stage of Timor-Leste's sovereignty, Strating explained.
But the island is running out of time.
It's estimated that the Bayu-Undan oil field, one of the government's biggest income generators located in the JPDA, will stop producing in 2022, Strating flagged. Moreover, the country's $16 billion sovereign wealth fund—known as the Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund—could be depleted by 2025, she noted.
The fund was among the top five best performers in the 2013 Resource Governance Index, a ranking developed by the non-profit Natural Resource Governance Institute.
"Even if Timor-Leste wins the conciliation, it will mean going back to square one with Greater Sunrise negotiations. It is difficult to see how this presents a practical, long-term solution for resolving the dispute," said Strating.
On Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop noted the current arrangements were hugely beneficial to the former Portuguese colony but said her government would engage in good faith during the conciliation process.
"There is an inescapable perception that Australia is denying its tiny, impoverished neighbor its sovereign birthright to determine its boundaries, control its own resources, and shape its own destiny," Ben Saul, Challis chair of international law at the University of Sydney, wrote in an August note. "Australia should stop obstructing Timor and help it to secure its borders and its future. This week's conciliation gives Australia a new chance to do the right thing."
Legal experts say July's South China Sea ruling could offer insight into the final verdict on the Timor Sea matter.
By denying China's territorial claims, the tribunal raises the prospect that Timor-Leste might successfully initiate an arbitration against Australia, corporate law firm Gilbert + Tobin explained in a report.
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