Timor-Leste first began the process of ASEAN Ascension in 2002 when its leaders made the strategic decision to stake their nation’s future on closer integration with ASEAN. The nation became an observer of ASEAN that year and in 2011 submitted its formal application for full membership. However, concerns over the nation’s readiness has persisted. Singapore in particular, believed that Timor-Leste still needed to build its capacity before it would be able to meet its commitments and contribute fully to the community. Thus, ASEAN took the unprecedented step of conducting feasibility studies to evaluate the country’s readiness.
But many in Timor and the region feel that the assessments are unnecessary. They point to the fact that no similar requirement was imposed on the other developing states of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar when they joined the association. Two of which continue to rank lower on the UNDP Human Development Index than Timor. And Timorese officials are often confused by the notion that they are incapable of upholding their commitments to the bloc, often pointing to the country’s involvement in the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) as proof of their capacity. But these discussions about Timor’s capacity misses the point. The real concern is the threat that Timor-Leste’s ascension could pose to ASEAN unity and integration.
On the economic front, harmonisation and integration will continue to be the prominent themes of ASEAN in the decades to come. And multilateral frameworks like the ASEAN Economic Community 2025 (AEC 2025), General Agreement on Trades and Services (GATS), The ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS), Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are helping to make that vision a reality, but challenges remain. The ASEAN way makes progress extremely slow and exacerbating the problem is the disparity among ASEAN member states which means that some nations will not have the capacity or commitment to reform.
It is within this context that Timor’s ascension into ASEAN in the near term seems unlikely. Timor lacks basic bilateral agreements with other ASEAN nations regarding aviation, trade, services, and standards and conformance. So, if allowed to ascend, progress on all ASEAN Roadmaps for integration may be slowed significantly. In addition, if Timor is allowed to participate fully in RCEP negotiations as an ASEAN member state, it would effectively force the restart of negotiations because of the need for an ASEAN Caucus consultation with Timor-Leste before returning to talks with dialogue partners.
Perhaps this is why the notion of Timor’s ascension has been met with resistance. It is not that Timor is incapable of meeting its duties to participate in and host ASEAN meetings as is often publicly stated. Rather it is that the country has yet to show that it can be a constructive member of the Southeast Asian region. Timor-Leste has not yet shown themselves to be committed to economic and social integration with ASEAN. In fact by his own account, Minister Xanana, Timor’s founding father and current minister of strategic investment, said that the Timor-Leste’s top priority is not economic liberalisation and integration, but instead the resolution of the Timor Sea Maritime disputes with Australia. And with ASEAN’s 50th anniversary next year compelling the association to present a tangible accomplishment to the world, ASEAN would not want an unknown quantity to potentially derail that progress.
However, in the long term, those concerns are unfounded. Much like Singapore, another small nation, Timor-Leste also understands that with only limited resources to exploit, its success will be dependent on its ability to diversify and integrate into the world economy. To that end it is embarking on major infrastructure projects and economic reforms. Since independence, it has poured billions of dollars into repairing roads, building a new international shipping port, and establishing telecommunications and electricity. Consequently, the nation has managed to go from 0% to 100% electrification and telecommunication coverage in just 10 years after gaining independence.
The Timorese government is also undertaking legal reforms in the areas of land and property, labour, fiscal, and FDI. All this is being done to bring the laws in line with best practices in the world and to create a better business climate for all. In addition, Timor-Leste has proposed and is spearheading the effort to establish a CPLP Single Market and the related National Single Window. An experience which will also clearly be beneficial to Timor-Leste’s efforts in ASEAN integration.
In conclusion, whereas other ASEAN states have lagged on meeting their commitments, and in some cases even regressed, Timor has been at the vanguard of building the necessary infrastructure, frameworks, and institutions required for a liberalised integrated economy. This fact is most pronounced in its work to garner support for the CPLP Single Market. Therefore, although there are small concerns in the near term, Timor-Leste can be counted upon to uphold and strengthen the ASEAN ideals of a politically cohesive and economically integrated community.
Tilson Pinto is the Economic and Cooperation Officer at the Embassy of Timor-Leste in Singapore, where he focuses on business development. Previously, Tilson earned an BA in International Business from The Catholic University of America where he developed a strong interest in international affairs. Stay connected with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/tilson.pinto) and Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/tilson-pinto-105ab43b)
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.