João da Cruz Cardoso emphasises the strategic importance of Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
On 19 to 21 July 2022, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) visited Timor-Leste to assess and exchange views with the key ministries and government agencies as part of the fact-finding missions to evaluate Timor-Leste’s readiness to join ASEAN. The AEC visit followed the previous fact-finding missions by the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) from 3 to 6 September 2019 and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) from 6 to 8 July 2022. Today, after the official application in 2011, Timor-Leste’s membership remains in limbo. But why should ASEAN grant membership to Timor-Leste now?
Timor-Leste cannot hide the reality of its shortcomings that has delayed the decision-making process of its membership application. Topping the list is Timor-Leste’s dependency on revenues from the oil and gas sector, and with its declining revenues, there is fear that Timor-Leste may become a burden to ASEAN and unravel its plan for economic integration in the future. This reveals the country’s slow progress in achieving a more diversified economy, highlighted by its low level of local production and underdeveloped market, which will prevent it from gaining benefits from a multilateral economic agreement with ASEAN.
Furthermore, there is concern about unemployment and poverty in the country. The latest 2015 Census shows the country’s low labour force participation rate, which is not a surprise given a lack of investment in the key non-oil sectors, particularly the agriculture sector, although it accounts for about 80 percent of employment in the country. Since a majority of the people live in the rural areas and depend on the agriculture sector, this situation also exposes the urban-rural progress gaps where rural areas do poorly compared to urban areas in terms of access to basic services and economic opportunities, contributing to a dire situation in which about 42 percent of Timor-Leste’s population live below the poverty line.
Another roadblock is the country’s low level of educational attainment since only 5.3 percent of the population aged 15 years and older had completed their universities as of 2015. This raises questions about Timor-Leste’s ability to compete with other ASEAN countries considering the provision of free skilled labour movements within the bloc.
While the shortcomings and the concerns deserve close attention, the benefits of Timor-Leste being part of ASEAN definitely outweigh the reasons for leaving it outside the bloc. Timor-Leste, fundamentally, has met the basic criteria for ASEAN membership since it falls within the geographical region of Southeast Asia and has established embassies in all the member countries of ASEAN. Furthermore, Timor Leste has taken necessary actions to comply with the obligations of membership within ASEAN. Having Timor-Leste as part of the bloc will allow ASEAN to include and anchor every sovereign state within the geographical boundary of Southeast Asia in its ambit.
By granting membership to Timor-Leste, ASEAN affords itself a rare opportunity to assist the young country in developing itself under its guidance, a unique experience to fine-tune its aims in terms of helping the young country to accelerate its economic growth, social progress and cultural development. In the meantime, the membership allows Timor-Leste to proactively promote peace and stability in the region. While Timor-Leste appears to have managed its affairs reasonably well thus far, ASEAN can contribute much more to the development process by bringing the know-how experience and skilled workforce into the much-needed sectors. Such support will contribute to the country’s long-term growth through the transfer of knowledge, strengthening people-to-people relations and increasing the quality of cooperation between Timor-Leste and ASEAN.
Since a brief stint of conflict from 2006 to 2008, Timor-Leste has proven its ability to settle political differences peacefully. The recent smooth transition of the government administration, particularly after the early election in 2018, further proved the maturity of Timor-Leste’s democracy. However, the biggest showcase of its maturity is the ability to forge friendly relations with Indonesia despite the dark past. This proves that Timor-Leste is forward-looking rather than letting the past obstruct the country from moving towards a better future. In fact, the relationship between Timor-Leste and Indonesia is a model for other countries to follow in order to move beyond the conflict of the past. Based on the experience, Timor-Leste understands that any conflict is bad for business and it hinders productive cooperation among countries, which are essential for economic development. However, Timor-Leste also recognises that an enduring peace and stability can only be achieved if the rights of the people are respected and protected. By forging friendly relations with Indonesia, Timor-Leste has concretely contributed to ensuring stability in Southeast Asia, thereby aligning itself with ASEAN’s objectives.
ASEAN cannot afford to let a small country, which shares land-border with Indonesia, tackle its own problems without regional support, which may expose it to greater external influence leading to instability within the country. ASEAN has seen how the internal conflict in Myanmar forces about a million of its people to seek refuge in the neighbouring countries, creating a humanitarian crisis with economic and social implications and causing political tensions across the region. This shows that internal conflict can create constraints on the relations among neighbouring countries, which can trigger unwarranted actions with grave consequences to peace and stability within and across the region.
Similarly, ASEAN also needs to learn from the war between Russia and Ukraine, which creates political tension across Europe and affects the global economy. While the history is long and complex, the conflict in Ukraine shows that inability to manage internal differences can result in two neighbouring countries on a path of war even after they have been separated for a long time. Timor-Leste is aware of such potential in the future given that many pro-Indonesian Timorese now reside along the two countries’ land border after the separation in 1999.
Having Timor-Leste as a member can also support and expand ASEAN’s commitment to multilateralism. For instance, Timor-Leste is a member of Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesesa – CPLP (the Community of Portuguese Language Countries), and therefore, it can serve as the bridge connecting ASEAN with CPLP in pursuing multilateral cooperation that fits the need of ASEAN.
Many articles have highlighted how the recent security pact between China and the Solomon Islands has created tension along the pacific region. Similarly, the tensions and disputes over the South China Sea are certainly threatening the security and stability across Southeast Asia and Australia. While it is unwise to let the small island nations fall into the major powers’ games and risk the strategic interest of the region, ASEAN can take advantage of Timor-Leste’s observer status as an entry point to the Pacific Islands Forum considering the importance of the pacific for the security of the region.
Considering all the limitations, Timor-Leste has done more than what it needs to become a member of ASEAN and has shown its ability to move forward. For the time being, it is foreseeable that there will be further delay in granting Timor-Leste a membership. However, is such a delay best for the interest of the region? Under the current leadership, Timor-Leste believes that the window of opportunity for granting the membership is now because the price is too high for ASEAN not to do so. ASEAN cannot afford to allow Timor-Leste to be anchored to other power(s) should it wish to exert its centrality in the regional architecture.
João da Cruz Cardoso is Head of Planning, Evaluation & Budgeting Department, Major Project Secretariat of the Ministry of Planning and Territory of Timor-Leste.