The Debate | Opinion

It Is in ASEAN’s Strategic Interest to Admit Timor-Leste Now

If the nation is not admitted soon, it will fall further behind the 10 members of the Southeast Asian bloc.

It Is in ASEAN’s Strategic Interest to Admit Timor-Leste Now
Credit: Depositphotos

On May 20, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste became Asia’s youngest country following a two-year transitional administration by the United Nations. August 8 this year marks the 55th anniversary of the Bangkok Declaration which created the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Given the close proximity of these two milestones, this year would be a good time for ASEAN to admit Timor-Leste into the regional bloc. In fact, it is in ASEAN’s strategic interest to admit Timor-Leste as early as possible.

Timor-Leste has demonstrated a keen interest in joining ASEAN long before it became a full sovereign state. In his memoirs, José Ramos-Horta recalled visiting ASEAN founding father Adam Malik in the 1970s to discuss the prospects of Timor-Leste joining. It is worth noting that the ASEAN in those days was far less developed than it is now. The regional bloc was newly created against the backdrop of the Cold War, and included just its five founding members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. As such, it is remarkable that the former Portuguese colony was already determined to become a full part of the region long before there were any tangible benefits from regionalism and regional integration. Unfortunately, nearly half a century later, Timor-Leste has long regained its independence but remains the final missing piece in ASEAN.

According to Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter, the section which outlines conditions of membership, there are four requirements: location in the recognized geographical region of Southeast Asia; recognition by all ASEAN member states; agreement to be bound and to abide by the Charter; and ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of membership

The first three points are now uncontroversial. The only major point of contention is that of “ability and willingness,” a very vaguely defined standard to begin with. Twenty-four years of Indonesian occupation and its aftermath did not do much for Timor-Leste’s development. It  is still recognized as a “least developed country” by the United Nations, and remains far from recognizing its aspiration of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2030.

In the earlier years of this century, Dili’s application for ASEAN  membership was rejected on the grounds that it had not yet established diplomatic missions in all of the remaining Southeast Asian countries. But Timor-Leste has come a long way since then and has ramped up its preparation efforts. Simultaneously, however, ASEAN integration has been taking place with enormous speed: the ASEAN Charter was adopted in 2007, and the ASEAN Community with its three pillars was launched in 2015. Back in the 1990s, the bloc was eager to incorporate Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, amidst the “end of history” optimism of the time, but since then the bar for admission has been raised higher and higher. The closest Dili ever got to membership was during the two decades it was annexed as “Timor Timur,” Indonesia’s 27th province.

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With a population of only 1.3 million and an economy smaller than that of Laos or Cambodia, the question of whether Timor-Leste is ready to integrate with the region looms large. However, the paradox of “readiness” is that if Dili is kept outside the door while ASEAN integration proceeds, the country would only be further left behind. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a giant force of disruption in Southeast Asia, as for the world as a whole. Moving forward, it is crucial that all of Southeast Asia recover together.

Membership of ASEAN is often a ticket to other international frameworks, and being outside the bloc has caused Dili to be excluded from many opportunities, the most obvious one being the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest trade agreement to date. Timor-Leste has also been left off the list of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy and Korea’s New Southern Policy, both of which are foreign policy directives that can boost economic and cultural exchanges.

From Hun Sen’s Cambodia frustrating the ASEAN meeting in 2012 to Duterte’s Philippines withdrawing from the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, there are no lack of leaders from the region and beyond that work against the international rules-based order. Consistently ranked as Southeast Asia’s most democratic country, Dili has proven that it is more than ready to embrace regional integration at all levels and to champion ASEAN values.

Finally, recent developments in the Solomon Islands should be a warning call for ASEAN leaders. In April, China confirmed that it has signed a security pact with the Pacific country, much to the alarm of neighbors including Australia and New Zealand. The government claims that the security agreement is mainly aimed at helping Solomon Islands with internal stability and will not involve the construction of a Chinese naval base in the country, as some observers have speculated. Nevertheless, this is a sign that Beijing is seeking to project its influence in the South Pacific, and the wider Indo-Pacific region.

China is one of Timor-Leste’s closest partners and largest sources of aid. In the country’s lonely struggle for sovereignty during the Cold War, Beijing was a supporter of the Timorese cause. Subsequently, China became the first country to recognize and establish relations with Dili in 2002. In return, Dili has consistently adhered to the “one China” principle. Three of Timor-Leste’s major governmental buildings were sponsored by the Chinese government: the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, and the Ministry of Defense office building. At his inauguration, the country’s new (and returning) president, José Ramos-Horta pledged closer relations with China. All of these suggest that China will play an increasingly important role in Dili’s foreign policy.

Situated between Indonesia and Australia, Timor-Leste is in a strategic location with high geopolitical significance. Any party that is able to build a military base on the half-island would pose a formidable security threat to both of its neighboring countries. In such a context, ASEAN should seek to assert its position within the region itself. It is very much in the interest of Southeast Asia to fully embrace Dili as soon as possible, and pull them into the regional bloc’s circle of influence.

As our region is phasing towards a post-pandemic era, Timor-Leste’s accession is back on the agenda again. Undeniably, the pandemic has to some extent hindered the work of ASEAN fact-finding missions designed to assess Timor-Leste’s readiness for accession – a process that was underway up until early 2020. Milena Rangel, Dili’s director-general for ASEAN affairs, expects that the country’s membership application will be discussed in Cambodia this year. It is foreseeable that major progress will be made at the upcoming ASEAN summits.

One potential technicality to be resolved, however, is Myanmar’s representation in the regional bloc. Under the consensual decision-making framework, all existing ASEAN member states have to be in agreement for a new member to be admitted. 2021 marked a historic first in which ASEAN leaders agreed to bar Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing from participating, and insisted that the country be represented on a non-political level only. Apart from Singapore, Myanmar has been one of the ASEAN members with the most reservations about admitting Dili to the bloc. In this situation, could Myanmar’s junta make a meaningful objection if it wanted to? Or would ASEAN be able to move on and make the decision without Myanmar?

During Cambodia’s previous chairmanship in 2012, deliberate obstruction on the host’s part caused the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that July to end without producing any joint communique – a first in the regional bloc’s 45 years of history. Now, a decade later, with Phnom Penh once again at the helm, handling Timor-Leste’s accession is a new test of the Cambodian government’s leadership and diplomacy. This could possibly be the most significant legacy of Hun Sen’s third, and likely final, chairmanship of ASEAN.