The Challenges of Expansion: Timor-Leste and ASEAN

By Maria Ortuoste, Professor of Political Science, California State University, East Bay

Timor-Leste’s accension to ASEAN will be challenging for the organisation, but it is essential to reduce the country’s economic and strategic vulnerabilities, writes Maria Ortuoste.

The ten members of ASEAN have voiced support for Timor-Leste’s eventual membership.  Their ministerial statement issued on 3 August said that they look forward to “accelerating the process of Timor-Leste’s application for accession to ASEAN”. Indonesia’s and Timor-Leste’s leaders stated that they hope Timor-Leste could become an ASEAN member by 2023.

But we have been down this road before. And every single year, for more than ten years, the reason cited for postponement is Timor-Leste’s lack of capability to fulfill the duties of an ASEAN member. It can be argued that ASEAN has learned the lessons from the hasty inclusion of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Progress towards an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) has been slow due to the members’ varied economic situations and still low levels of intra-regional trade. Political turmoil and violence, especially in Myanmar, has not only incurred reputational costs for ASEAN but it has also caused a rift in its voting bloc in the United Nations. The generals of Myanmar have even been barred from attending ASEAN meetings due to lack of progress in implementing the Five-Point Consensus of 2021, not to mention the violence it has committed over the past years.

The ability of China to divide ASEAN, through Cambodia, led to such a lack of consensus in 2012 that for the first time, the group did not issue any ministerial statement. The lesson taken, and applied to Timor-Leste, is that potential members need to be vetted for readiness and capability for membership. Caution is certainly necessary, but ten years is enough time. The unique political, economic, and geostrategic contexts in which Timor-Leste and ASEAN find themselves require action.

Compared to Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, Timor-Leste has achieved a modicum of stability, overcoming for the most part the tumultuous events of 2006 and 2008.  Elections have been held regularly since 2001, and they are considered free and fair.  The political deadlock in 2019-2020 could recur, but it is not expected that it would undermine Timor-Leste’s institutions. Public perception is generally positive. The 2022 Tatoli Public Perception Survey showed that a majority believed the government was doing a good job and was headed in the right direction. Moreover, most respondents said that they trusted the younger generation to lead the country. At the very least, this indicates the possibility that there could be a relatively smooth generational turn-over. Thus, ASEAN’s international reputation may not suffer, and Timor-Leste’s democratic principles are in line with the ASEAN Charter and the goals of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC).

The more significant problem, which could have dire political implications, is the country’s economy. Timor-Leste has made several economic and human development gains, but significant challenges remain – revenues from offshore oil are dwindling, money in the Petroleum Fund might only last for another decade, almost half of the population “lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day”, and infant mortality is extremely high. Funding for education is still low, and the lack of employment has led to young people leaving the country for the UK, South Korea, and Australia. Timor-Leste faces a huge task of satisfying basic needs, diversifying its economy, improving its connectivity, and addressing its high vulnerability to natural disasters resulting from climate change.

Realistically, Timor-Leste will not be able to bear the costs of ASEAN membership in the near future unless ASEAN makes adjustments such as suspending or lowering Timor-Leste’s membership dues for the first five years of its membership and enabling the ASEAN Secretariat to provide greater assistance and resources to the Timorese government.

Several analysts stated that bringing in Timor-Leste will further complicate the realisation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which is envisioned to be “highly integrated and cohesive”, competitive, but also “resilient” and “people-centered”. But denying membership could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy – Timor-Leste’s economy could collapse leading to political disarray and mass migration. ASEAN trade and investment in Timor-Leste has grown, but it is still minimal, and ASEAN is hesitant to undertake the “economic burden” of Timor-Leste. However, ASEAN can make itself a conduit for Timor-Leste to access intra-regional trade, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and even the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The director of the WTO Accessions Division has stated that WTO and ASEAN accessions are complementary and synergistic.

While there are no easy solutions to Timor-Leste’s economic problems, ASEAN and other countries in the region, including Australia, need to reduce Timor-Leste’s vulnerabilities. Otherwise, they might face an even greater problem – the increasing influence of China. ASEAN needs to be extremely wary of China’s influence in Timor-Leste – more than it was about China’s influence over Myanmar and Cambodia when they joined the group in the late 1990s. Today’s China is far more economically, politically, and militarily formidable than China in the 1990s. It has been more willing to exert its economic and diplomatic tools against perceived opponents, and its tough stance is expected to continue after the likely anointment of Xi Jinping to a third term during the 20th Party Congress this year. China will therefore continue its Belt and Road Initiative, and its assertive stance in the South China Sea.

Chinese and Timorese bilateral cooperation has persisted for the past 20 years with bilateral trade reaching $400 million in 2021. China is helping build the country’s Tibar Bay Port. Prior to the ASEAN meetings, Xi reiterated China’s support for Timor-Leste’s development; in turn, President Jose Ramos-Horta stated that Timor-Leste fully supports the BRI and other major development initiatives. The Timorese president recently stated that if ASEAN abandons them, the country could either “completely align with the US and be its outpost in Southeast Asia, or align with China, which is closer and has a more dynamic economy”. A Timor-Leste dependent on China will not help ASEAN in developing a political and security community or its greatly prized regional centrality.

China is intent on widening and deepening its regional influence. Prior to his meeting with Horta, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had just visited ten Pacific Island countries. These visits supposedly resulted in numerous bilateral agreements in 15 areas of cooperation. Wang Yi stated that China wants to create a “comprehensive agreement” with Pacific Island countries, including ASEAN observers Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, that would include a free trade agreement, security policy, fishing rights, and “managing the region’s cyberspace”. It should be noted that almost all ASEAN countries have received Chinese investments connected to the BRI, and these have helped fill in the infrastructure gap. ASEAN members cannot hope to replace the role played by China in Timor-Leste. Nevertheless, this behooves ASEAN to be more vigilant and to make sure that they develop some way to exchange information to mitigate any negative effects that may arise, especially in terms of cybersecurity. In this regard, they should cooperate closely with other key stakeholders, such as Australia.

Having said this, it is important to note that the new members are not solely at fault. ASEAN could have undertaken gradual steps to strengthen the institution and the secretariat to manage changes in the 1990s. For example, it could have taken more decisive steps to push Myanmar’s democratic transition, including banning the military’s attendance in some ASEAN meetings as they had done recently. This will require greater flexibility in interpretations of “non-interference” – this is an idea that has been around for a long time, so ASEAN members are already familiar with the concept. After all, new members are also expected to adapt to the organisation and be willing to make compromises.

ASEAN also would have to be more comfortable with disagreement. The massive projects of ASEAN require so many changes in the “old way of doing things” that disagreements will inevitably arise. The ASEAN Secretary-General could perhaps play a more active and constructive role in forging agreement. The secretariat could be more empowered so that ASEAN’s projects will have greater continuity. In practical terms, the secretariat could assist new members with managerial functions for a few years, and it could also co-host some ASEAN meetings in Jakarta to ease the resource demands on new members.

In the end, the inclusion of new members requires not only adjustments from the “applicant” but it also requires old members to adapt to change. All members of a community do need to make sacrifices for each other. Current economic and strategic contexts point towards the need to induct Timor-Leste into ASEAN by 2023. Institutional and organisational changes are needed not only to accommodate a new member; they are required to turn ASEAN into a resilient and nimble organisation capable of meeting new challenges.

Maria Ortuoste is Professor of Political Science, California State University, East Bay. Her research interests include Southeast Asia and Indo/Asia-Pacific security, Philippine and US foreign policy, international law and maritime security, military alliances, and security multilateralism.

Banner Image: The flags of ASEAN and ten countries of ASEAN in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - April 22, 2022 Credit: Shutterstock.