Timor Leste’s formal admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the 41st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last year as an observer came after a long wait. Since its independence in 2002, Timor Leste had nurtured aspirations for an ASEAN membership. After a long eleven-year journey of negotiations, in September 2022 the country was granted “in principle” approval to join ASEAN. More recently, at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Indonesia, ASEAN even adopted a roadmap for Timor Leste to become a full member. Prospects seem bright for Timor Leste’s full membership in ASEAN by September 2023.
In this long journey, Timor Leste has faced mixed reactions to its bid for membership ranging from strong support to outright rejection. While the majority of ASEAN member states have favoured Timor Leste’s accession, in the past Laos and Singapore have expressed strong apprehensions, owing to the stark economic gap between Timor Leste and other members. Accounting for the lowest GDP per capita in South-East Asia, Timor Leste is arguably economically the most fragile country in the region. Nevertheless, the country’s full membership holds great significance when ASEAN seeks to expand its regional influence. The crucial question, therefore, is: What does this mean for ASEAN regionalism?
Indonesia has consistently supported Timor Leste’s efforts to gain full membership in the ASEAN. Coming from a difficult relationship after Timor-Leste's separation from Indonesia in 1999, Indonesia’s support indicates an intention to develop a friendlier regional ecosystem and to make ASEAN a more rule-based international order. The long-established interpersonal ties between President Jose Ramos Horta, with various prominent figures in Indonesia including reformist president Abdurrahman Wahid also have a role to play in this. Having Indonesia as a front supporter is crucial to strengthen Timor-Leste’s presence in the ASEAN. As Indonesia is the current ASEAN chair, Timor Leste has a golden opportunity to push its bid for membership and must work on building multi-track diplomatic channels with Indonesia that will allow the country to populate particularly in B to B and CSO settings and drive its membership agenda.
As outlined by Indonesian president and ASEAN chair Joko Widodo, agenda settings under his leadership will have to revolve around the implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the Five-Point Consensus, a written commitment to resolve the protracted situation in Myanmar. These are unequivocally the key deliverables in meeting the ASEAN’s long-term vision in Indo-Pacific. Through this firm standard, member-states are expected to deliver through cooperation and reduce tension in realizing what lies at the core of AOIP, namely maritime security and the blue economy.
In helping ASEAN achieve the five-point consensus peace plan for Myanmar, Timor-Leste has shown a progressive move by articulating its support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Before regaining his current presidency, President Ramos-Horta partnered with a former Indonesian ambassador to convene a Joint Declaration on the Crisis in Myanmar. This was an essential move in terms of aligning perception and closing the gap at the civil society level. More importantly, it was a progressive endeavor to reaffirm Timor-Leste’s identity as a part of the ASEAN family.
Given, Timor Leste’s geo-strategic location on the southernmost edge of the Indonesian archipelago, northwest of Australia, it will be interesting to see how the country’s potential full membership inclusion will shape ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific outlook. However, Timor-Leste’s capacity to commit to the AOIP agenda will be limited. The document was a response to the emerging multilateral arrangements involving key regional players—such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) and AUKUS (Australia, US, and UK trilateral security pact)—through non-violent and non-militaristic development exercises to meet sub-regional priorities in maritime connectivity, economic security, and sustainable development goals (SDG’s). This is where it is difficult for Timor-Leste to maintain its relevance in the AOIP framework due to its slow-progressive economic development to achieve regional SDG metrics.
Timor-Leste's accession to ASEAN is principally and inevitably correct. However, needless to say, ASEAN needs a better economic and security posture in these challenging times and Timor-Leste’s admission will not be enough. Nevertheless, Timor-Leste requires a status transition to a full member as it will contribute to a more positive tone of inclusivity in the region. To bolster its commitment, Timor-Leste should start highlighting its humanitarian contribution to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management and be more vocal in its position on Myanmar. This would send a clear message about whether or not Dili is fully onboard with the rest of the ASEAN members.