Timor-Leste bids for ASEAN membership

Timor-Leste bids for ASEAN membership

As Timor-Leste manoeuvres obstacles to ASEAN membership, we consider what the expected benefits of being ASEAN’s newest member will be, and whether these may come with potential costs.

Timor-Leste, the fledgling state that gained its independence in 2002, made a formal request to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2011. This formal application came after a number of years of ASEAN observer status.

Despite its intent to join the association, a number of hurdles need to be overcome before this can be fulfilled. To understand Timor-Leste’s bid for ASEAN membership in more detail, we consider the expected benefits of accession to the institution, and what Timor-Leste will have to accomplish to achieve this goal.

Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence

Timor-Leste is one of the newest countries in the international system. It formally gained its independence in May 2002, after a long and protracted struggle to secede from the Indonesian archipelago.

Formally known as East Timor, the territory was invaded by Indonesia in 1975, and incorporated as Indonesia’s 27th province in 1976. Despite allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated against the East Timorese, the territory remained part of Indonesia until 1999, when local citizens overwhelmingly voted for independence in a United Nations (UN)-backed referendum.

Following the referendum, pro-Indonesian militias attacked civilians, and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. The situation was only stabilised when an Australian-led, UN peacekeeping force entered the region.

A United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor was established in 1999 to oversee a transition period in East Timor. This remained in place until East Timor became formally independent.

Progress and economic growth

Despite occasional recurrences of violence, most notably in 2006 when an International Stabilisation Force had to be deployed to the region to regain order, Timor-Leste has managed to gain some political stability.

According to the World Development Report 2011, post-conflict countries take between 15 and 30 years to transition out of fragility. Timor-Leste’s economic growth, driven by the country’s offshore petroleum revenue in the Timor Gap, has helped improve social services and human development. However, more progress is needed to alleviate poverty.

According to the Asian Development Bank’s 2015 report, 49.9% of Timor-Leste’s population lives below the poverty line, and human development indicators are amongst the lowest in the region. Projections for growth in the economy, excluding the offshore petroleum, are at 6.2% in 2015 and 6.6% in 2016.

Steps towards ASEAN – what are the benefits?

It is perhaps unsurprising, considering the country’s economic and political fragility, that Timor-Leste views ASEAN membership as a priority.

Timor-Leste is the only country in Southeast Asia not to have joined the regional institution. Although it has made gradual steps towards admission, becoming a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005 and signing the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in 2007, full membership has so far eluded Timor-Leste.

Not all ASEAN countries have supported Timor-Leste’s bid for membership in the past. Singapore in particular has been reticent to accept Timor-Leste’s bid, believing the country will hinder ASEAN’s hopes to establish an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

According to Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan 2011- 2030, the country will ‘pursue [ASEAN] membership as a priority foreign policy goal to enhance Timor-Leste’s long-term strategic interests’. In this view, ‘ASEAN membership will give Timor-Leste access to an established forum where important issues such as security, economic development and integration, and socio-cultural matters can be pursued’.

ASEAN membership would allow Timor-Leste to benefit from a thriving ASEAN economy, valued at approximately US$1.5 trillion. At the same time, Timor-Leste would have access to national development funds offered by ASEAN to reduce disparities between member states.

Timor-Leste is taking the necessary steps and processes to comply with ASEAN’s requirements. These include developing infrastructure to host ASEAN summits and meetings, and establishing diplomatic presence in all ASEAN capitals.

As part of the process for eventual membership, ASEAN has commissioned three independent studies to assess Timor-Leste’s political-security, economic and socio-cultural sectors. ASEAN will also provide Timor-Leste with opportunities to participate in ASEAN activities, in order to gain exposure to ASEAN’s work processes and methods.

Benefits, but not without costs

Despite the obvious benefits of ASEAN membership for Timor-Leste, these are not without certain costs.

According to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, it could be to Timor-Leste’s advantage to wait before joining ASEAN.

The institute highlights the economic fragility, and potential for political instability, at the heart of ASEAN, where there is a wide disparity between ASEAN government spending on its citizens. This ranges from $15,000 per annum in Brunei to $40 per annum in Myanmar. An eleventh member may only exacerbate this disparity.

Timor-Leste might also benefit economically from delaying ASEAN membership. There is the concern that membership of the AEC might expose Timor-Leste’s developing economy to unnecessary risks.

Membership might also exacerbate the unreciprocated bilateral trade relationship with neighbouring states. Timor-Leste is heavily reliant on imports from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. However, with the exception of Indonesia, its export markets fall largely outside the region.

For the time being, Timor-Leste is in a good position. It can gain experience from participating in ASEAN activities, whilst concentrating on building infrastructure and economic growth.

It seems unlikely that the potential costs of ASEAN membership will outweigh the obvious benefits. However, they are something to be aware of, as the country continues its economic and social development.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Laura Southgate

Laura Southgate is Lecturer in International Security at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University, located at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool.