Is Timor-Leste Ready to Join ASEAN?

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Is Timor-Leste Ready to Join ASEAN?

If membership means sacrificing the country’s values, perhaps it would be better to remain on the outside.

Is Timor-Leste Ready to Join ASEAN?
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 18 of this year, Timor-Leste abstained from a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the military regime in Myanmar. The decision drew ample criticism, including from José Ramos Horta, the country’s former president, who described Timor-Leste’s vote as “a vote of shame” given the Myanmar military’s murder of civilians and imprisonment of elected national leaders. Similarly, civil society organizations denounced the government for its abstention and apologized to the people of Myanmar.  Mariano Sabino, the president of Partidu Demokrátiku (the Democratic Party), declared that violations of human rights occurring in Myanmar resembled those experienced by Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation.

Over the years, Timor-Leste has made its intention to join ASEAN clear, and it appears to be employing a non-confrontational approach to achieve this goal. The abstention vote was an example of this approach, based on the assumption that displeasing Myanmar (or any ASEAN member state) could have repercussions for its desire to join the organization. Considering this latest saga, is it ready to join the 10-nation bloc?

Besides geographic location, cultural exchange, and regional politics, Timor-Leste is adamant to join ASEAN due to the opportunity to access the ASEAN market, which is expected to boost the economy of the country. This is in-line with the purposes of ASEAN, which seeks “to accelerate the economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region,” and “to promote regional peace and stability.” The Southeast Asian bloc, via creation of the ASEAN Economic Community, is keen to establish a single market and production base “to strengthen the implementation of its existing economic initiatives; accelerating regional integration in the priority sectors; facilitating movement of business persons, skilled labor and talents.”

Although Timor-Leste is not yet a member of ASEAN, it has engaged closely economically with ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. Based on data from the General Directorate of Statistics, Timor-Leste spent about $2.05 billion on imports between 2016 and 2019, more than half of which was spent  in five ASEAN countries. Meanwhile, in the same period, the country exported just $95 million worth of goods and services to ASEAN countries, revealing Timor-Leste’s extreme trade deficit with the bloc.

Throughout its quest to join ASEAN, questions have been raised regarding Timor-Leste’s readiness to join the bloc. The idea of readiness is quite vague, but has nevertheless mostly been understood through a technical lens, in terms of economic condition, human capital, and the adequacy of its infrastructure. In terms of GDP, Timor-Leste’s economic growth was reasonable prior to political impasse in 2017 and 2018, as evidenced through the 5.3 percent  growth that the country saw in 2016. Indeed, this rate of  growth is comparable to a number of ASEAN countries. For instance, analysis conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on the GDP growth of several ASEAN countries from 2016 to 2018 shows that, on average, Indonesia experienced 5.1 percent growth, Malaysia 5.0 percent, the Philippines 6.6 percent, Vietnam 6.6 percent, and Thailand 3.4 percent.

In terms of human capital development, Timor-Leste has made significant progress. For example, Timor-Leste’s Human Development Index (HDI) increased from 0.484 in 2000 to 0.606 in 2019, putting the country in the “medium” human development category. In the meantime, the rate of literacy had reached 84 percent as of 2015, a remarkable feat compared to the literacy rate of 46 percent in 2004. And, the percentage of students attending university nearly doubled from 4.6 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2015.

Moreover, nationwide infrastructure has improved considerably. In the transportation sector, the construction of national roads has reduced travelling times and improved connectivity between cities. Infrastructure improvements in the energy sector resulted in about 80 percent of the population having access to electricity as of 2017. Meanwhile, 75 percent of private households in the country had access to improved or safe sources of drinking water as of 2015.

Despite the improvements discussed above, Timor-Leste cannot hide the reality of its shortcomings. To begin with, it still heavily depends on revenues from the oil and gas sector, while the key non-oil sectors – particularly agriculture – are still very much underdeveloped, even though the agriculture sector accounts for about 80 percent of employment in the country. Moreover, the 2015 census data shows that 33.3 percent of the population aged 15 years of age and older did not receive any education, while only 5.3 percent had finished university studies, revealing the country’s low levels of educational attainment.

This particular condition will present a serious challenge to Timor-Leste considering the provision of skilled labor movements within ASEAN, defined within the framework of the Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRA). The result of the Enterprise and Skills Survey 2017 provides a concrete example of this, as it indicates that civil engineers, among other skilled workers, were in demand but were not available in the local market.  Furthermore, the labor force participation rate in 2015 stood at just 56.1 percent, exposing the country’s high unemployment rate. Timor-Leste must also address the urban-rural progress gaps, given that rural areas have less access to education, water, and health services as well as fewer economic opportunities compared to urban areas, contributing to a dire situation in which about 42 percent of Timor-Leste’s population live below the poverty line.

In a recent interview, Timor-Leste’s minister of foreign affairs pointed out that the country continues to undertake preparatory works to improve its economic, socio-cultural and political conditions to meet the requirements necessary to join ASEAN. While the extent of the truth lies in the details, Timor-Leste has reason to be optimistic. The Democracy Matrix 2020 ranks Timor-Leste first in Southeast Asia in terms of the quality of its democracy. At the same time, Freedom House considers Timor-Leste to be “free.” This is not a surprise given the country’s ability to resolve recent political differences peacefully. It also shows a commendable maturity towards religious tolerance and aspirations for an inclusive society.

Regardless of these arguments, Timor-Leste needs to reevaluate its approach towards joining ASEAN, as well as what it ultimately hopes to achieve through its membership in the bloc. The process of joining ASEAN must be a two-way street wherein Timor-Leste’s willingness to join ASEAN is reciprocated by ASEAN’s willingness to allow the country membership. This means that Timor-Leste’s efforts toward membership should be based on a clear set of requirements stemming from a collective decision of all 10 current ASEAN members. This serves two purposes: First, it would enable Timor-Leste to carry out more focused preparatory work; and second, it would signal ASEAN’s seriousness in granting eventual membership to Timor-Leste. Furthermore, Timor-Leste must realize that becoming a member of ASEAN is not the final goal, but should rather be one of the means necessary to transform the country’s economy and improve the wellbeing of the people. Timor-Leste, as such, must continue to strengthen its economy, improve its human resources, and consolidate its democracy, not simply in order to join ASEAN, but to achieve the development envisioned in the Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030.

Ten years after Timor-Leste officially applied for the ASEAN membership in March 2011, the approval of its membership remains unclear. This might be a blessing in disguise because Timor-Leste has had the opportunity to improve the productive sectors, strengthen the private sector, expand commercial activities, and enhance its skilled labor force being forced to fend for itself in ASEAN’s competitive market. Therefore, Timor-Leste’s approach must be based on development driven from within, and achieved through the improvement of key sectors, particularly education, rather than expecting changes to be initiated externally.

Most importantly, Timor-Leste must not lose its identity for the sake of joining ASEAN. It freed itself from the tyranny of the 24-year Indonesian occupation due to its fundamental desire for freedom and independence, along with the support of the international community. By voting to abstain on the U.N. Resolution condemning the military regime in Myanmar, Timor-Leste is violating its principles “to fight all forms of tyranny, oppression” and “to respect and guarantee human rights and the fundamental rights of the citizen,” as the country’s Constitution puts it, principles which are inextricably linked with the history and the dignity of a free nation.

In the end, Timor-Leste cannot aspire to have economic growth if it cannot build a nation-state that respects and guarantees human rights and the fundamental rights of its citizens. Similarly, Timor-Leste cannot wish to join ASEAN if it has to stand idle and turn a blind eye to oppression and tyranny elsewhere. While ASEAN presents economic opportunities, Timor-Leste cannot expect to stand on equal ground with other ASEAN members if it cannot uphold its values and maintain its integrity as a sovereign nation-state. While the narrative has been about Timor-Leste’s readiness to join ASEAN, perhaps for now, it is more appropriate to ask whether Timor-Leste should join the bloc at all.