Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste have stood on the fringes of ASEAN with ambitions of joining the 10-nation trading bloc for more than a decade. Both are struggling democracies, nations with a least-developed tag beside their name, and a history of communal violence. And neither are the sort of ideal sovereign role model that the secretariat in Jakarta would welcome with open arms.
Supporters of their ASEAN applications, however, would argue the same was said about Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar when they joined the 600 million-strong bloc in the 1990s. But those three countries did boast much bigger populations and strategic position needed for the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, launched at the start of this year.
“Stability is an issue everywhere,” said Keith Loveard, a regional risk analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consultancy.
“However, neither PNG nor Timor-Leste has demonstrated that they can maintain stability. The PNG government is perpetually hanging on by a fragile thread and to even talk about stability when the capital is effectively a no-go area is a stretch of the imagination.
“Timor-Leste has experienced plenty of problems maintaining stability since independence, not least the jealousies between the eastern and western parts of the country,” he said.
Their reputations are a perennial sore point, but PNG and Timor-Leste will shortly hold strategically important elections, which will be watched carefully by regional observers and serve as a harbinger for their respective futures and their place in the region.
In Timor-Leste local elections have just been held and presidential elections will be staged in the new year. Assuming they pass off peacefully, the presidential polls will help clear a path toward the young country’s integration with ASEAN, which has been touted by the Indonesians for 2017.
But Timor-Leste’s past has been turbulent ever since the first United Nations-backed troops were dispatched after independence was won at the ballot box in 1999.
A coup attempt* in 2006 prompted the re-deployment of UN and Australian forces. More Australian troops arrived two years later amid further bloodshed and an assassination attempt on then-President (and former prime minister) Jose Ramos-Horta.**
“Timor-Leste’s factionalism remains a problem for the emergence of what might be termed a full democratic state,” said Gavin Greenwood, a regional security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates.
“This is unlikely to be altered by next year’s presidential elections … this reflects the country’s troubled past and the country’s small political class – both of which are connected – although there is no indication that they will not meet international standards,” he said.
Timor-Leste applied for membership to ASEAN in March 2011, a bid which was reaffirmed after elections the following year.
Former President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao says every country within ASEAN supports its regional integration and that a road map had been established, including its active participation in meetings as a future member of the bloc.
But Greenwood noted other member states were unlikely to oppose Jakarta’s backing of Timor-Leste as they would see little to gain from unnecessarily antagonizing Indonesia – by far the biggest force within ASEAN – over a country with little to add to the grouping other than aggrandizement.
“Timor-Leste’s small market and narrow economy hold few advantages, while the global impetus for consolidation into often internally unbalanced trading blocs has come under greater scrutiny post-Brexit,” he added.
Meanwhile, PNG has held observer status within ASEAN since 1976, but its bid for full membership to the group has also faced persistent obstacles.
In particular, Port Moresby still has unresolved sovereignty issues with the island of Bougainville as it enters the final stages of a peace agreement, which ended a decade-long war in 1999 that left up to 20,000 people dead. Fabled for its giant copper mine, Bougainville is now an autonomous part of PNG and a date for an independence referendum has been sketched in for June 2019.
PNG remains a politically confused and challenged nation, and this will not change ahead of elections, said Greenwood.
“Allegations of corruption, the ruling elites’ response to such charges, [and] growing dissatisfaction among the small young educated urban class to such allegations all point towards further instability and possibly unrest,” he said.
In PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and the president of Bougainville, John Momis, insist they are working toward overcoming problems associated with the referendum on independence.
Nevertheless, Bougainvillians have complained that Port Moresby has been holding-out on promised – and much needed – development aid while in PNG fears persist that militias on the isolated island have failed to completely disarm.
Those fears should subside once the independence election is done. But Greenwood and Loveard both noted that “once again” Indonesia would hold a controlling defacto veto on PNG and its efforts to gain membership to the ASEAN trade bloc.
They also said PNG’s bid would not be helped by its geography, which Greenwood noted was even “more remote than Timor-Leste.”
This was further complicated “Melanesian solidarity” in Port Moresby.
Greenwood said the aspirations of the Indonesian Papua’s indigenous population – culturally and ethnically tightly bound with clans across the border in PNG – meant Jakarta would not see much of an advantage in giving PNG a potential platform within ASEAN to challenge its claims in its easternmost provinces.
Essentially, PNG and Timor-Leste have moved closer to ASEAN integration but membership to the 10-nation club is far from a foregone conclusion.
“Seen from the perspective of ASEAN, it’s difficult to see that these two will make much of a contribution to an organization that demonstrates more differences than similarities,” Loveard said.
“Is it feasible to see ASEAN summits in either Dili or Port Moresby? There’s no doubt that both would benefit from membership of ASEAN, not least from open trade, but is the reverse true? It doesn’t seem that way.”
There has also been speculation that Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even Taiwan could join the ASEAN grouping.
All three would have have more to offer than PNG or Timor-Leste. However, it is important to note that Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have not emerged as major embarrassments to the trading bloc, as some critics had predicted when they were first mooted in the early 1990s.
But ASEAN’s next expansion wave will center on Timor-Leste and PNG. And if they do make the ASEAN grade, could Bougainville also join the regional club as an independent nation further down the track?
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt
*A communications adviser to the Timor-Leste government offered the following statement:”There was no coup in 2006, but rifts between certain parts of the Timor-Leste armed forces due to unhappiness during the early stages of their transformation from a guerrilla-based military to a modern national defense force.”
**A previous version of this article said Ramos-Horta was prime minister when he was injured in an assassination attempt.