When Can Timor-Leste Expect to Become a Full Member of ASEAN?

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When Can Timor-Leste Expect to Become a Full Member of ASEAN?

The young nation is being forced to surmount a much higher bar than past members of the Southeast Asian bloc.

When Can Timor-Leste Expect to Become a Full Member of ASEAN?

Timorese President José Ramos-Horta treads the red carpet during a state visit to Vientiane, Laos, Feb. 28, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/José Ramos-Horta

Since Timor-Leste was granted official observer status and received in-principle approval to become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Cambodia in 2022, the nation has moved slowly toward membership in the 10-nation bloc.

Last May, at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia ASEAN’s member states adopted the Roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full ASEAN membership and its Annexes, formulated by the ASEAN Coordinating Council after fact-finding trips to the country. Subsequently, in September 2023, during the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesian President Joko Widodo encouraged ASEAN member states and external partners to help Timor-Leste fulfil the criteria stipulated in the Roadmap.

At the same time, Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão highlighted the importance of ASEAN membership to “give foreign companies and investors confidence and security to invest in Timor-Leste,” which is “crucial for the growth of Timor-Leste’s economy.” Correspondingly, Timor-Leste has intensified its efforts to join the bloc, by appointing a vice minister for ASEAN affairs and preparing an action plan for the implementation of the Roadmap. Most recently, last month, the Timorese Council of Ministers approved a draft government resolution on coordination mechanisms that will help facilitate Timor-Leste’s accession. With the resolution adopted, Timor-Leste can now work on fulfilling the criteria necessary for ASEAN membership, allocating resources to that end, and establishing a reasonable timeline for when its full membership will finally be materialized.

During the 7th ASEAN Media Forum in Jakarta in October, Sayakane Sisouvong, former deputy secretary general of ASEAN, shared several key lessons of Laos’ own accession to ASEAN in 1997. First, the former secretary said that Timor-Leste needed to conduct an assessment of the country’s readiness to join ASEAN to allow for the identification of any shortcomings. Second, it needs to build a nation-wide consensus where society at all levels can buy into the importance of ASEAN membership. This will allow the country to rigorously discuss the advantages and disadvantages of membership, and thereby prepare itself better. Third, it needs to appoint officials who can engage with other ASEAN state members at all levels. This includes improving proficiency in English, the working language of ASEAN, which will allow engagement not only between governments but also between businesses and people within the region. Finally, Sayakane said that it was necessary for Dili to prepare the infrastructure necessary for hosting  regional and global summits.

The lessons highlighted by the former secretary general align with the criteria and milestones stipulated in the Roadmap, which requires Timor-Leste to:

  1. Demonstrate the ability and readiness to implement and abide by the ASEAN Charter and carry out the obligations of ASEAN membership as well as institutional capacity to implement and abide by the ASEAN Community Vision, the ASEAN Community Blueprints and its attendant documents.
  2. Be able to implement and abide by all ASEAN treaties, conventions, agreements, and instruments under the three ASEAN Community pillars.
  3. Establish a dedicated diplomatic mission to ASEAN in Jakarta.
  4. Designate national implementing agencies, focal points and representatives for ASEAN sectoral meetings and working groups including ensure sufficient English-speaking personnel in all relevant line ministries and agencies.
  5. Establish bilateral agreements on the mutual recognition of official and diplomatic passports with the ASEAN member states and agreements in accordance with the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Visa Exemption.
  6. Prepare a financial scheme to meet all financial obligations of ASEAN membership.
  7. Ensure required physical infrastructure and logistic readiness to host ASEAN meetings and accommodate delegates within a rotating chairmanship.

The Roadmap also includes the requirement of semi-annual monitoring and evaluation by the ASEAN Secretariat on the progress of the implementation in achieving the above milestones.

While certain criteria of the Roadmap, such as criteria 3, 5, and 6 are relatively straightforward, criteria 1, 2, 4, and 7 need extensive preparation from Timor-Leste, and require time to achieve. Although the devil lies in the details, the main take away from the Roadmap and the advice offered by Sayakane in October is that Timor-Leste is responsible for driving its own development, and that efforts to prepare for ASEAN membership should be guided not only by government-to-government relations, but also business-to-business and people-to-people relations.

While the government will take a leading role, the private sector including local businesses and farmers, academia, and civil society organizations, must be involved in the preparations for ASEAN membership. The government must realize that the full benefits of membership can only be ensured when the country has the condition to absorb and take advantage of opportunities presented by ASEAN, including the ability of its private sectors and government officials to both cooperate and compete within the bloc.

The technical criteria of the Roadmap may have merit, but ASEAN appears to be setting a higher bar for Timor-Leste than it did for the most recent states to join the bloc. Laos signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in July 1992 and acquired observer status the same year; it then applied for membership in March 1996 and became a full member in July 1997. Myanmar was granted observer status in July 1996, applied for membership the following month, and became a full member in July 1997. Cambodia signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1995 and received observer status the same year, applied for membership in 1996, and became a full member in April 1999 (the membership was scheduled for 1997, but delayed due to internal conflict).

Meanwhile, it took 11 years for ASEAN to grant observer status to Timor-Leste, despite the progress it has achieved as well as its ability to maintain peace and stability.

The complicated Roadmap also seems to contradict the spirit of the ASEAN Declaration, which states that the first aim and purpose of the organization is “to accelerate the economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian Nations.” By issuing the Roadmap, and continuing to delay the granting of membership to Timor-Leste, ASEAN is showing no such willingness for joint endeavors aimed at accelerating the nation’s development, even though Timor-Leste has already met the basic criteria for ASEAN membership and has shown unwavering commitment to becoming a member.

Regardless of the circumstances, Timor-Leste must recognize that it needs to prepare itself better for ASEAN membership and address its various shortcomings. For instance, based on the Education Analytical Report 2015, the percentage of students attending university was only 9 percent (increased from 4.6 percent in 2010), which reveals the country’s low level of educational attainment. The same report also indicates that the English literacy of the population aged 5 years and older stood at just 15.6 percent in 2015, up from 11.5 percent in 2010. This figure may have changed over the last nine years but likely not by a big margin.

Timor-Leste, similarly, continues to face challenges in terms of infrastructure, including the airports, accommodations, and IT infrastructure necessary to host high level meetings. Nonetheless, Dili has continued to prioritize infrastructure development, including by improving the Nicolao Lobato International Airport in Dili. Based on the data derived from the government’s Transparency Portal, Timor-Leste has spent $3.6 billion from 2011 to 2020 on the development of infrastructure, 29 percent of the government’s total expenditure within that period.

While the expectations and concerns from ASEAN member states are valid, such shortcomings are not limited to Timor-Leste. For example, a recent assessment of the infrastructure in ASEAN reveals that total infrastructure spending in 2015 came to $55 billion (excluding Singapore, Brunei, and Laos), far short of the estimated required annual spending of $147 billion. Meanwhile, the English Proficiency Index (EPI) 2023 only places Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines at very high and high proficiency, while Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia are placed at low and very low proficiency. The region, as such, is not without obstacles, and Timor-Leste should not be held to higher standards than the past member states.

Whatever the realities, Timor-Leste’s government would be wise not to pin its hopes for future economic development on external factors such as ASEAN membership. On the contrary, enduring development can only be achieved if it is driven internally. This means that investments to improve human resources, infrastructure, and the private sector should be made not simply to meet criteria for ASEAN membership but as part of the overall investment to improve the economy and well-being of its people.

During the aforementioned 7th ASEAN Media Forum in Jakarta, the term “the ASEAN Way” was mentioned in discussions about the resolution of disagreements and disputes within the region. The ASEAN Way is a decision-making process emphasizing discussion and consensus based on the principles of non-interference, non-use of force, quiet diplomacy, and consensus. The approach has been able to maintain peace and stability in the region because the power is believed to be more equally distributed despite economic and geographical disparities among the member states. However, its effectiveness has been questioned when it comes to dealing with situations that require immediate actions, such as grave violations of human rights.

Thus framed, the ASEAN Way has had a direct impact on Timor-Leste’s bid for the membership, considering that it has not shied away from speaking out and making its position clear on issues related to human rights and political freedoms, including recently in the case of Myanmar. Therefore, the answer to the question of when Timor-Leste will become a full member of ASEAN does not only depend on its ability to meet the criteria and achieve milestones defined in the Roadmap, but also on when consensus can be reached by all the current members of the bloc. This includes Singapore, which that shown some reservation in granting Timor-Leste’s membership, and Myanmar’s military junta, which presumably does not appreciate Timor-Leste’s public criticism of its human rights situation. Despite the seemingly objective criteria contained in the membership Roadmap, the decision on whether to admit Timor-Leste is fundamentally political in nature.

In the meantime, Timor-Leste must focus on using the money from its limited oil resources to develop the key non-oil sectors corresponding to its own needs for development. This can provide the condition for the diversification of its economy, which will make it better prepared for full membership of ASEAN, should this be granted in the near future.