Challenges and Opportunities: The View From Timor-Leste

 
 

There has been recent renewed interest and discussion in the public domain around Timor-Leste’s prospects for joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the country’s prospects in general. Timor-Leste would like to offer its perspective.

Timor-Leste was blessed to come into nationhood at the dawn of a new millennium in 2002, on the back of the Pacific Century, in the midst of the Information Age when knowledge is increasing and spreading at exponential rates. When we began our struggle for independence in 1975, we could not have anticipated that the Occupation would last so long (24 years), that the human toll would be so high (one-third of our population perished), nor that Timor-Leste would achieve statehood at a time where Asian economies are expanding at some of the fastest paces on the planet.

To be geographically situated in Southeast Asia at this time, in the midst of such a vibrant region of innovation and commerce, brings many opportunities as well as challenges: Opportunities to leverage upon the expertise and capital resources in the region, and the challenge to rapidly upgrade Timor-Leste’s human and infrastructure capacity, to become competitive in the marketplace, and to carve a niche for itself in the world.

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Shedding a quarter of a century of isolation, and now into its second decade as a sovereign state, Timor-Leste is ready to take its place in the community of nations, to learn and to share from its resources and unique experience. Rising from the ashes of war, Timor-Leste possesses firsthand experience in effective peace-building as a precursor to nation-building and development.

Today, Timor-Leste is politically stable, and its relationship with former occupier Indonesia is warm, understanding, and strong. In fact, Indonesia was the first country to endorse Timor-Leste’s inclusion in ASEAN. All ASEAN member states have now expressed their support for Timor-Leste’s admission to the Association. In 2015, Timor-Leste fulfilled one of the Association’s key entrance requirements with the establishment of embassies in all 10 ASEAN countries.

As recently as late 2015, a senior Singapore official confirmed to Timor-Leste Minister for Planning and Strategic Investment Xanana Gusmão that “Timor-Leste belongs in ASEAN.” Timor-Leste remains sanguine that its accession to the Association will take place sooner rather than later. This view is informed by three driving forces: the growing threat of transnational crime and terrorism, the increasing menace of climate change and environmental hazards, and the great powers’ jostling for influence and dominance in the Asia Pacific.

Terrorism is a peril that threatens all of Southeast Asia. Even as authorities investigate the January 14 multiple bombings in Jakarta, it is clear that terrorism has gone global. Attacks carried out in one nation can be planned on the opposite side of the world, and involve citizens and funding from numerous countries. Sleeper cells may lodge in a remote hamlet or in the middle of a pulsing urban center. It has become crucial to close the gaps of communication and information exchange between countries, to head off dangers and to nip terror in the bud.

Climate change, floods, droughts, fire, and pollution are no respecter of borders. Neighbor countries need to coordinate responses to environmental adversities, as well as harmonize the management of shared water and other resources in order to avoid and minimize conflict.

Cross-border crimes and fraud have gone high-tech. Tackling cybercrime, human and contraband trafficking, piracy, kidnapping, and thievery across the region’s territories requires multilateral cooperation.

The final factor relates to powerful countries’ perpetual drive for influence and control. A founding aim of ASEAN was for the countries of Southeast Asia and Indochina to join hands to create an environment of friendship, peace, and stability conducive to national economic and social development. This imperative remains relevant today. It is valuable to remember the rewards of this cohesiveness, and to resist and prevent Southeast Asia from becoming a proxy battleground for the larger regional and global powers.

Timor-Leste believes in the vital importance of a strong, independent and united ASEAN for the security and prosperity of the region, and looks forward to contributing to the continued success of this family of nations.

Timor-Leste has much in common with ASEAN countries in intertwined history and cultures, in shared values and traditional practices, in cuisines and arts. These bonds are reflected in Timor-Leste’s population: Timorese faces are Malay, Chinese, Indian, European, Melanesian, and every possible combination thereof.

Melanesian ties connect Timor-Leste to the Pacific. The country maintains close cooperation with the Pacific nations and is preparing to join efforts with the Pacific Community, a grouping of 22 Pacific Island countries and territories plus the four founding countries, Australia, France, New Zealand, and the United States.

Its colonial past bestows on Timor-Leste one of its official languages – Portuguese – and links the country to the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) of over 260 million people across four continents. Timor-Leste currently holds the presidency of the CPLP for a 2-year term through 2016, chairing all ministerial and working group meetings.

The engagement between Timor-Leste and ASEAN is already well in motion. In addition to taking part in sporting events such as the Asian Games, Timor-Leste has been a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum since 2005, when it signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation of Southeast Asia. This formalized Timor-Leste’s participation in consultations on political and security issues of common concern. As Timor-Leste continues to build these long-term relationships, it also redoubles efforts at developing the country’s domestic economy.

In December, 2015, the Timor-Leste Government granted land rights to a Singapore-based international company to build a hospitality complex which will include a 5-star hotel with over 460 rooms. The construction phase is expected to generate 1,500 jobs, with hotel operations estimated to create and maintain 1,300 jobs. The high-end facilities will attract greater numbers of visitors to the country, support the hosting of international conventions and events, and spur the growth of the tourism industry.

Dutch brewer Heineken’s new US$40 million beverage plant in Timor-Leste is expected to start producing beer and soft drinks at the end of 2016 for export and domestic consumption.

Timor-Leste is forging alliances with its immediate neighbors, with plans to form a Trilateral Economic Zone with Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province and Australia’s Northern Territory to combine resources to create critical mass for commerce and infrastructure, and to provide services and opportunities to the regional populations of the three countries. This is in addition to the existing cooperation under the Coral Triangle Initiative, of which both Australia and Indonesia are members.

There are many synergies to tap between Timor-Leste and its neighbors in the management of neighborhood security and health, in the exploitation of marine and natural resources, and in the building of shareable infrastructure and services.

As evidence of how far bilateral relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste have come, Jakarta has committed to work with Díli to complete the demarcation of the two countries’ land borders (now 98 percent drawn) and thereafter, to commence the delimitation of maritime boundaries.

Australia, however, has been unwilling to engage on the delimitation of permanent boundaries in the Timor Sea. Timor-Leste remains hopeful and optimistic that Canberra will come to see the long-term benefits – to both our countries – of establishing a more equitable and sustainable governing regime in the Timor Sea in accordance with the principles of international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

As 2016 gets underway, Timor-Leste extends its hand and renews its invitation to Australia to come to the table to map a better and more just path forward in the Timor Sea.

Agio Pereira is the Minister of State of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

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