The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially turns 55 today, without expanding into 11 members. At the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) in Phnom Penh on 3 August 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Timor-Leste will not become a member of ASEAN this year. This statement appears to confirm a recent comment by Timorese President Ramos-Horta that the "road to heaven —to reach the perfection of heaven— is easier than to reach the gates of ASEAN."
On 20 May 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste became the world’s first new sovereign state in the 21st century and the youngest country in Asia. Up till this date, Timor-Leste remains to be the only Southeast Asian state that has yet to join ASEAN. Two decades since Timor regained its independence and fifty five years after the establishment of ASEAN, now would be a good time for the bloc’s final phase of expansion. However, while the post-pandemic period has opened a window of opportunity for renewed accession negotiation, geopolitics is back on the horizon and might provide yet another setback.
Timor-Leste, or East Timor, is a tiny island state situated right between Indonesia and Australia with a population of approximately 1.3 million. It is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia apart from the Philippines. Timor-Leste shares a land border with Indonesia’s West Timor region to the west, which constitutes a part of the Nusa Tenggara Timur province. The country has often been overlooked by the international community due to its small economy and population, yet it has a significant role to play in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical landscape.
The case of Timor’s accession to ASEAN offers a unique glimpse into the multitude of regional and global challenge in 21st century, such as South-South relations, colonialism, and neo-imperialism. ASEAN is often referred to as the second most successful regional organization after the European Union with a greater population than the entire EU combined and impressive GDP growth over the past decades. The region will play a significant role in a geopolitical order characterized by Sino-US rivalry and thus deserves a lot more scholarly attention by the various subfields of the political science discipline.
Long Struggle for Self-determination
Carved out as a result of negotiations between the Dutch and the Portuguese, the Eastern half of the island has been subjected to Portuguese colonial rule for five centuries (along with an enclave to the West). The 1974 Carnation Revolution in Lisbon resulted in a political vacuum in the colony, and local revolutionary forces seized the opportunity to proclaim independence in 1975. However, the nascent nation would become one of the unfortunate casualties in the Cold War.
Before and after declaring independence, there were differing views on the future of East Timor. Some favoured integration into Indonesia while others wanted full independence. A brief civil war broke out, in which the left-wing party Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) emerged victorious. Indonesia’s Suharto regime claimed that Timor-Leste would fall into the hands of communists, and with tacit approval from American President Gerald Ford and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, he launched an invasion in the name of anticommunism. The first Timorese republic lasted only nine days before the territory was overrun by the Indonesian military. This incident, known as the Lotus Operation (Operasi Seroja), marks the beginning of a 24-year occupation that would lead to the death of up to one-third of the population.
Indonesia’s New Order regime collapsed in 1998 following the Asian Financial Crisis. As suppressing the Timorese resistance had been extremely costly and unpopular internationally, Suharto’s successor B. J. Habibie allowed for a referendum, in which an overwhelming majority opted for independence. In retaliation, pro-Indonesian militias in the territory mounted a Scorched Earth Operation which saw some eighty-five percent of the buildings burnt or destroyed. To stabilize the region, East Timor was placed under the protectorate of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). On 20 May 2002, Timor-Leste finally regained its independence.
Determined for ASEAN Membership
Prior to declaring independence in 1975, Timor-Leste had already demonstrated keen interest in joining ASEAN. José Ramos-Horta, who would eventually become a Nobel Peace Laureate and the second President of Timor-Leste, went to Jakarta to discuss ASEAN membership with Indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik, one of the founding fathers of the regional bloc. The latter gave an affirmative response and even offered to allow Timorese diplomats to receive training in Indonesia.
It is worth noting that the ASEAN at that time was nothing like today. The grouping was still largely a Cold War construct with anticommunist overtones. There were no member states apart from the five founders: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and there was little to be gained from joining ASEAN in terms of economic integration. All of these attests to Timor-Leste’s self-identification as a Southeast Asian nation and their eagerness to become a fully recognized member of the community. “We are a country that belongs to this region,” foreign minister Dionísio Babo Soares remarked during his official visit to Singapore in 2019.
Ironically, Indonesia did fulfill their promise to Timor-Leste on ASEAN membership - not as a sovereign state but instead as its 27th province, Timor Timur. This was the closest to ASEAN that Timor-Leste ever got to. In the years after Timor regained independence, Indonesia has become one of the strongest supporters in the former’s bid for ASEAN membership.
ASEAN membership matters in several ways. First, as a nascent state, Timor-Leste is seeking to establish its place in the international community - and membership in a regional organization is an important step in this. In her monograph The Post-Colonial Security Dilemma: Timor-Leste and the International Community, Rebecca Strating highlighted the constraints faced by a small and weak state, which leads to their pursuit of absolute external state sovereignty as “real” independence. For much of Timor’s history it has been dominated by foreign powers: the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Indonesians. They have only recently emerged from a United Nations transitional administration, and a seat in the regional organization could offer Timor a greater sense of agency. ASEAN membership, in particular, is a ticket to other international frameworks such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the East Asia Summit. The access to regional markets and free trade areas would be conducive to the country’s aspiration of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2030. Earlier this year in an interview with the New Straits Times, Timorese Ambassador to Malaysia Joana Veneranda Amaral stated ASEAN membership is now a “national and strategic priority” and would be “a strong catalyst for growth among its businesses and entrepreneurs.”
ASEAN in the 21st Century
ASEAN has developed exponentially at the turn of the century, with the bloc doubling in size. After Brunei’s admission in 1984, the four Indochinese states were admitted in the 1990s: Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. The Cold War was subsiding and ASEAN was eager to bring the entire region together. Had Timor-Leste been a sovereign state already in that period, it would most likely have been welcomed into the organization already. Unfortunately for them, the bar has only become higher and higher ever since.
Developments in the last two decades have cemented the popular conception of Southeast Asia as a region. The ASEAN emblem and flag consists of ten padi stalks, representing the ten member states; the ASEAN Charter was signed in 2007, conferring legal personality to ASEAN as an inter-governmental organisation. As of today, the term “ASEAN” is used almost interchangeably with the Southeast Asian region, and many do not even think of Timor-Leste as a part of it. Furthermore, the ASEAN Community in 2015 has further accelerated the regional integration process. In this sense, ASEAN has left Timor-Leste far behind.
According to Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter, there are four criteria for admission to ASEAN:
There is no controversy surrounding the first three criteria at this point, and all that remains is the last one, which is rather vaguely defined. When Timor-Leste first handed in their application for accession to ASEAN, the country had not established diplomatic missions in all neighboring states yet. Timor has come a long way since then, though obstacles remain.
Large disparity across countries has frustrated Singapore’s agenda for greater regional integration, and the addition of Timor-Leste would likely slow down the process even further. The Timorese economy is even smaller than that of Cambodia and Laos, and is classified by the United Nations as a “Least Developed Country.” Furthermore, unlike other international organizations, all ASEAN member states are expected to contribute an equal amount to its operations, and under the ASEAN Community integration they would have to attend over a thousand regional meetings on various government levels and topic areas. This would undoubtedly pose a challenge for Timor-Leste.
Politics has been a potential factor leading to hesitation on the part of other ASEAN members. Timor-Leste is consistently ranked as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, ahead of all ASEAN member states. Having been a victim of Portuguese colonialism and Indonesian imperialism, the country has taken an activist role in championing human rights and advocating for a rules-based order, which possibly has led to reservations from the more authoritarian countries in the region. However, perhaps in a desperate attempt to garner support for ASEAN membership, Timor-Leste abstained from a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the situation in Myanmar last year. This decision has been criticized by former President Ramos-Horta as well as some other observers, who went as far as claiming that it has “tarnished” the country’s bid for membership. While this abstention vote may have backfired, it demonstrates just how far Timor is willing to go for admission to ASEAN.
The China Factor
While Timor enjoys close relations with its two neighbours Indonesia and Australia, as well as the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), its interactions with China must not be overlooked. Beijing has been a firm supporter of Timor’s long struggle for independence amidst the Cold War, when most Western countries acquiesced to Suharto’s expansionism. As a result, three major government buildings have been sponsored by China: the presidential palace, ministry of foreign ministry, and the military headquarters. Ten years after he stepped down from the post, Ramos-Horta was elected as President again this year. At his inauguration speech in the national capital Dili, he pledged closer bilateral ties with China and outlined several sectors including agriculture, energy, and infrastructure.
Concurrently, China’s actions in the Pacific have drawn close attention from players within the region and beyond. In April Beijing confirmed it has signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands - a sign that it is seeking to assert its influence in areas further away from the Mainland. If China is to reach a similar deal with Timor-Leste, this would undoubtedly pose a security threat to both Indonesia and Australia, two of the largest countries in the vicinity. While there is no further sign that Beijing intends to do the same with Timor yet, ASEAN should act decisively to draw Dili further into its orbit. Timor-Leste has proven its commitment to the Southeast Asian region, and their inclusion could add impetus the notion of ASEAN Centrality, which refers to the bloc’s leadership role in coordinating multilateral discussions for regional affairs. Promoting ASEAN Centrality is crucial as Southeast Asia seeks to maintain its autonomy amidst an increasingly bipolar world.
Timor-Leste remains to be the final missing piece to ASEAN. The paradox here is that they were essentially stuck in a vicious cycle: Timor was refused entry for not being “developed” enough, yet at the same time their growth is being stunted without ASEAN membership. Due to the geopolitical factors at play, it would be in the strategic interest of ASEAN to admit Timor-Leste as soon as possible.
Previous fact-finding missions assessing Timor-Leste’s readiness has been impacted by the global Covid 19 pandemic. As the world phases into a post-pandemic era, there has been renewed attention on the topic of Timor’s accession and Milena Rangel, Timor-Leste’s Director-General for ASEAN Affairs, is confident to make progress at the 2022 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. Dili’s eventual admission would be a significant milestone for the country’s development, and herald a new chapter for ASEAN as it finally represents the entirety of Southeast Asia.