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Timor-Leste’s critical window on ASEAN

Should Timor-Leste not become the 11th ASEAN member by the end of 2017, momentum may be lost and ascension indefinitely delayed.

Photo: Getty Images/James D Morgan
Photo: Getty Images/James D Morgan

Amid the celebrations of ASEAN's 50th birthday last week, the question of whether Timor-Leste will soon be granted full membership lingers.

ASEAN membership is the cornerstone of Timor-Leste's foreign policy. In March 2011, Timor-Leste applied for formal membership to ASEAN while Indonesia was chair. The 2011 Strategic Development Plan envisaged Timor-Leste possessing full membership of ASEAN by 2015, with Timor-Leste playing a key role within the organisation as recognised experts in 'economic development, small-nation management, good governance and aid effectiveness and delivery'.

The ASEAN Charter stipulates that membership is conditional on four factors: geographical location; recognition by other states; agreement to be bound by the ASEAN Charter; and ability and willingness to carry out obligations of membership. The key challenge for Timor-Leste has been proving its capacities to meet membership obligations to the ASEAN states.

ASEAN membership presents onerous requirements for small states, including the need for embassies in all 10 member nations. Timor-Leste has a dedicated government portfolio to ASEAN membership (the Secretary of State for ASEAN Affairs), and it established an ASEAN secretariat in Dili. As part of a charm offensive, former Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão visited the ASEAN countries from 2013, using public speaking opportunities to praise ASEAN's role in regional and global affairs. In 2016, Timor-Leste held the ASEAN People's Forum (APF) for Southeast Asian civil society organisations because Laos as chair was reluctant to do so. Timor-Leste has hence devoted considerable resources to its pursuit of ASEAN membership.

In 2016, three independent studies on the implications of Timor-Leste's accession to ASEAN's political, economic and socio-cultural pillars were completed. The first two studies found that Timor-Leste's human resources needed 'capacity-building' to 'boost economic growth and skills'. A report by the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on the membership bid is currently underway. The 2017 ASEAN foreign ministers Joint Communique 'welcomed Timor-Leste's participation in relevant ASEAN activities within the context of its need for capacity building'. The language of 'capacity building' is similar to the ASEAN 2016 Joint Communique, perhaps indicating that Timor-Leste's application is being delayed. 


Timor-Leste's primary motivation to join ASEAN is security and geopolitical interests. The perceived value of ASEAN for small states lies in its capacity to ameliorate regional security risks through collective security arrangements, and as a forum for promoting national interests in regional security discussions.

Second, Timor-Leste's representatives present ASEAN as a useful pathway for advancing its economic development plans. However, some critics have argued that Timor-Leste's economy would be better served by abandoning or delaying ASEAN accession plans. Sally Percival Wood, for instance, argued that as a country heavily dependent on imports, Timor-Leste risks being 'flooded with cheap goods from ASEAN countries', which could further stifle the development of Timorese industries.

Third, Timor-Leste's pursuit of ASEAN membership reflects its desired position in international relations. In terms of regional identity, Timor-Leste has long been described as being at geographical and cultural crossroads between the South Pacific region to the east, Southeast Asia to the west and the diffuse Lusophone community that emerged from Portuguese colonialism.

As a regional organisation, ASEAN sets identity boundaries as it is increasingly synonymous with 'Southeast Asia'. As a province of Indonesia, East Timor was included in the geographical region covered by ASEAN. As such, independent Timor-Leste has a strong claim to belonging to Southeast Asia. However, Timor-Leste acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as a state outside of Southeast Asia. As long as Timor-Leste remains outside of ASEAN, its sense of regional identity remains ambiguous.

On the cusp of independence, leaders had to make choices about the regional associations Timor-Leste would seek to join. Although ASEAN states were actively supportive of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor within the international community, Timor-Leste's leaders privileged ASEAN membership in foreign policy.

Finally, Timor-Leste and ASEAN share notions of sovereignty that reinforce the rights of member states to political independence, territorial integrity and self-determination, attendant rights to non-interference in internal affairs and non-use of force. The commitment to non-interference in domestic affairs needs to be understood in the context of colonial intervention, an important historical consideration for the twice-colonised Timor-Leste. Principles of non-interference and non-use of force also help alleviate the acute sense of vulnerability experienced by small states in the region regarding potential intervention from larger states.

Where to from here?

The general feeling among the commentariat is that Timor-Leste's chances of joining ASEAN remain strong. The crucial players, however, are the 10 member states, which all must unanimously agree to its accession.

The public debates about Timor-Leste's ASEAN membership tend to focus on democratic credentials (see here, here and here). The problem with such discussions is that those credentials are largely irrelevant. ASEAN itself encompasses diverse regime types, including electoral democracy, competitive authoritarianism, military junta and absolute monarchy. ASEAN as an organisation is bound by norms of non-interference, including rejecting criticisms of states made on the basis of democracy and human rights.

Furthermore, the likelihood of Timor-Leste shining a democratic beacon to light the way for others within the ASEAN community seems a long bow to draw in the current global context. On the issue of human rights, for instance, Timor-Leste's representatives pragmatically softened criticism of Myanmar's human rights abuses for fear that it would jeopardise ASEAN membership prospects.

ASEAN's core concern is the avoidance of intervention and interference from players outside the region. Among ASEAN states, there still appear to be concerns about the weaknesses of Timor-Leste statehood. ASEAN states are also more cautious about general expansion, given the dilemmas presented by Myanmar's membership and demands for an ASEAN response to human rights abuses.

Singapore has been particularly opposed to Timor-Leste's membership, with concerns that Timor-Leste might burden ASEAN with requests for financial support and hinder the progress of ASEAN economic community building. Laos has also expressed concerns about Timor-Leste's economic capacities to fulfil membership obligations, despite Timor-Leste's greater GDP per capita than Laos, and its higher Human Development Index ranking than Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Finally, Timor-Leste's efforts to diversify its foreign relations through enthusiastic participation in organisations such as the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) have also cast doubt over its commitment to ASEAN membership.

A key question is whether Timor-Leste will likely need intervention in the future. Given Timor-Leste's reliance on five UN missions, including a lengthy Australian-led intervention from 2006-2012, these are important considerations for ASEAN states. Further, ASEAN states might question whether Timor-Leste would be a drain on ASEAN resources. Without an agreement with Australia on the Greater Sunrise gas field, Timor-Leste may be broke within the decade. Will a weakened Timor-Leste provoke an intervention into Southeast Asia if an agreement fails?

Following the recent elections in July, Timor-Leste's political unity between Fretilin and CNRT has broken down. The Fretilin government is now in negotiations with minor parties to form government, raising questions about the stability of leadership and prospects for consolidation of institutions over the next five years. 

This is a critical time for Timor-Leste's accession. This year, Philippines is the ASEAN chair, and it has been publicly supportive of Timor-Leste's bid for membership. Next year, however, the chair turns to Singapore, who has been publicly reluctant to permit Timor-Leste entry into ASEAN. Should Timor-Leste not become the 11th member by the end of 2017, momentum may be lost and Timor-Leste's accession indefinitely delayed.

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