East Timor’s Accession to ASEAN

Fears of the country’s economic future drove voters to the polls in East Timor. How would its accession to ASEAN change things?

By Claire Carter, edited by Anne Hwarng

On 22 July 2017, the young Southeast Asian country of East Timor held its first Parliamentary Elections without the supervision of the United Nations (UN). Fears of the country’s economic future dominated campaign rhetoric, with various parties putting forward their plans to revive the economy. The outcome of the election showed that voters wanted the two political parties of the incumbent government, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), and the Fretilin Party, to stay in power.

However, the incumbent government has faced harsh criticism for its big-ticket spending on infrastructure development projects. The 10% vote for the new People’s Liberation Party (PLP), which opposes high-cost projects, points to the electorate’s disapproval of the incumbent’s economic policies.

With the changing landscape of East Timor over the years, the country has seen a paradigm shift in the political sentiments of its locals over the years with a drastic decline in political apathy. In fact, Timor-Leste’s young democracy has matured with this past election being the country’s first peaceful one in its 15 years of independence.

The new government faces great challenges as it moves forward with pressures to alleviate widespread poverty in the country and improve the lives of up to 1.2 million people. With widespread public discourse and Timorese eager to see change, Timor Leste’s impending accession to ASEAN could provide a solution to many of Timor Leste’s problems on the economic front. The situation is looking up for the young nation and their potential accession into ASEAN could relieve the new leadership of the challenges they face.

ASEAN Membership important for New Government

With revenue from gas and oil depleting, East Timor would no doubt reap economic benefits of joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economic community. Given that Timor’s only producing gas field is projected to dry up in 2020, long-term economic security is crucial to the newly-elected coalition government. These circumstances threaten the future of East Timor, as gas revenues make up almost 90% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Currently, unemployment rates are high, especially among the young men in the populace. ASEAN membership would boost the country’s foreign investment and tourism market, and ease the economy’s dependency on oil and gas.

Beyond economic prosperity, membership in ASEAN would boost Timor’s legitimacy in the region and grant it an official platform to discuss regional security issues.

East Timor’s history with ASEAN

East Timor has long recognised the benefits of joining the regional bloc. Since gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, East Timor has repeatedly voiced its desire to join ASEAN. It formally applied for ASEAN membership in March 2011, and a feasibility study was then launched to assess the country’s readiness to join the organisation in the areas of its politics and security, economy, and social issues.

Since 2011, Timor has made numerous diplomatic efforts to display its eagerness to join ASEAN. For example, it joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 2005 and acceded to the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in 2007. It has also set up foreign embassies in all ASEAN countries.

East Timor is also building up a good reputation in the area of governance. Timor currently ranks higher on the Freedom House democracy scale than its Southeast Asian neighbours due to its transparent elections and coalition government. In 2016, Timor hosted the ASEAN People’s Forum, also known as the ASEAN Civil Society Conference.

ASEAN’s mixed response

Despite Timor’s efforts, ASEAN has sent mixed messages on East Timor’s membership. In December 2012, then ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan visited Timor Leste and expressed hope that Timor Leste would become ASEAN’s 11th member. Old members like Indonesia and the Philippines are very supportive of Timor’s accession to the regional bloc, and new members like Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar are similarly enthusiastic.

However, not all members are as optimistic. Singapore articulated fears that East Timor would weigh down on the ASEAN economic community and needed more time to ready itself for the new addition.

The organisation’s slow review of the feasibility study conducted since 2011 further hints at the organisation’s collective reservations. At the 30th ASEAN Summit held in Manila, the Philippines on 29 April 2017, ASEAN Chairman Rodrigo Duterte reiterated that Timor’s application was still “under study by the relevant senior officials” and affirmed that ASEAN was committed to Timor’s capacity-building. Many had hoped that Duterte, a keen supporter of Timor’s membership, would be able to accelerate the assessment process, but this hope has not materialised.

While Timor’s membership would appear to be in line with ASEAN’s motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” for the Southeast Asian region, the organisation has its reservations about being too inclusive to its detriment.

As ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, East Timor’s accession does not seem to be high on the organisation’s priority list. Time will only tell how this long process will pan out. For the new coalition government now tasked with the heavy responsibility of securing long-term economic growth and pulling the country out of poverty, time is running out.