Timor-Leste’s ASEAN Play

Timor-Leste is keen to join ASEAN. But security factors make the prospect unlikely, for now at least.

Timor-Leste wants help. Australian troops are pulling out of the country leaving it much to its own security devices as it wallows as the poorest in Asia, with a recent report revealing 54 percent of the nation’s children under the age of five are stunted because of malnutrition.

With that in mind, East Timor’s Foreign Minister Zacarius Albano da Costa has been scouting for support, with the country increasingly pitching its future on joining the 10-member trading bloc, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Top of its support list is Thailand. Bangkok was among the first countries to recognize Timor-Leste’s independence and established diplomatic relations in 2002. The recent 10-year anniversary provided a backdrop for some backroom maneuvering in Bangkok with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Da Costa hopes Timor-Leste will join ASEAN “soon” and during the visit secured his country an invite to the World Economic Forum to be held in Bangkok at the end of May, 10 days after his country celebrates its 10th anniversary marking independence from Indonesia.

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ASEAN is watching Timor-Leste. General elections are due mid-year and Jose Ramos-Horta has signaled he will run for a second term in the March 17 presidential election. The position is largely symbolic, but important. Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 and survived an assassination attempt in 2008 and has proved himself a unifying force in a young country prone to internal upheavals.

This is the problem for ASEAN, an institution that flinches at any sign of trouble and will begrudgingly raise its hand to help only if there’s no alternative and to keep out non-ASEAN influences who are often prepared to rush in where ASEAN dares to tread.

As such, any ASEAN involvement in disputes among members is usually belated and often over-hyped to cover up for the embarrassment of doing too little too late – a byproduct of ASEAN’s overarching policy of non-interference in a neighbor’s affairs.

Indonesia’s failed attempt to broker a resolution between Cambodia and Thailand over Bangkok’s occupation of Cambodian territory around the temples of Preah Vihear is a case in point. Nevertheless, ASEAN attitudes to security do matter.

Outbreaks of violence and a coup in Timor-Leste prompted the re-deployment of United Nations and Australian forces in 2006 and this was substantially bolstered by more Australian troops two year later, amid further bloodshed and the attempt on Ramos-Horta’s life.

Timor-Leste’s ASEAN ambitions are matched by Papua New Guinea (PNG), which has been covered by The Diplomat, where ethnic clashes left at least nine dead and a thousand homeless late last year.

Both countries can see enormous economic benefits through membership with a trade bloc that numbers more than half a billion people who live on their doorstep, especially once the free trade agreement comes into force in 2015.

However, unless Timor-Leste, like PNG, can convince the wider region that the internal divisions that feed tribal, ethnic and religious tensions, and that the differences between the military and the executive have been resolved, then ASEAN will continue to see Timor-Leste as too much of a security risk for membership.

ASEAN will happily allow Dili to remain a semi-dependent of the U.N. and almost by default Australia, and as such lock Timor-Leste out of a region that is experiencing unprecedented growth.