So near yet so far. Timor-Leste has been trudging for eight years but the road to Asean membership remains long and winding for Asia’s youngest democracy.
Geographically, it is located within the ambit of Asean, which currently comprises the 10 nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
With a consumer market of 640 million people and a combined GDP of US$2.76 trillion (Bt87.2 trillion), Asean is now the fifth-largest economy in the world.
But why is the half-island nation of 1.3 million people still being cut off from this zone of prosperity? Th answer is the oft-repeated bureaucratic phrase, because it “does not have the capacity yet”.
In spite of its troubled past – more than 400 years under Portuguese rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, a violent fight for independence, United Nations transitional administration, and political instability after independence – Timor-Leste has done remarkably well as a democracy.
As for its economy, it grew at 6 per cent last year, just short of the 7 per cent achieved by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Timor-Leste’s involvement in the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), a nine-member multilateral forum boasting a population of 268 million people and a combined GDP of US$2.1 trillion, provides additional proof of its qualification.
Timor-Leste held the CPLP presidency for two years (2014-2016), demonstrating its institutional ability.
The quest for Asean membership has been the keystone of its foreign policy since independence in 2002 because of the potential economic benefits and reduction in the country’s regional security risks.
Membership would provide access to funds for national development through programmes like the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI), launched in 2000 to narrow the development gap between member states, which has greatly benefited newer members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Among the priority areas under the IAI’s work plan are infrastructure, human resource development, ICT, regional economic cooperation, tourism, poverty eradication and improvement of quality of life.
Timor-Leste joined the Asean Regional Forum in 2005 and acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2007 before making its first membership application in March 2011. The prognosis was to make Timor-Leste a full member by 2015 and a feasibility study was conducted towards this plan.
In 2013, then Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh gave the impression that all member states agreed with admission but the dithering on acceptance effectively began that year with demands that Timor-Leste build its capacity to be able to meet commitments and contribute fully to Asean.
Some countries, notably Singapore, felt that Timor-Leste’s accession would lead to financial strain with member nations having to contribute towards its development.
The likely contribution of Timor-Leste towards Asean’s regional integration through the potential of its oil and gas revenue, estimated to rise above $20 billion over the next decade, was not considered though.
Four subsequent evaluations were done, including one by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Asian Development Bank.
The results of these only delayed acceptance with the same excuse of “not being ready yet”.
When Asean admitted Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia between 1995 and 1999, there were no such preconditions.
But with the wider cooperation and integration in Asean today, membership has become more technically demanding. A country seeking membership now must comply with 64 legal requirements and changes to laws to ensure uniformity within the bloc.
Hopes for Timor-Leste’s admission were raised again in 2017 before Asean’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Manila and the bloc’s 31st summit. But at the end of it, then chairman Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte poured cold water by saying the application was still being studied.
Accession for membership is governed by Article 6 of the Asean Charter, which covers three conditions: the country must be in Southeast Asia, the decision to admit must be unanimous, and there must be the ability to fulfil all commitments and obligations.
Timor-Leste has fulfilled most of the requirements, including opening embassies in all Asean countries.
Although the gap between Timor-Leste and the richer nations is wide, Asean must demonstrate better goodwill to a country that clearly qualifies to be a member.
As the bloc advocates the principle of equality and fairness, its policy should be that of “Prosper thy neighbour”.
It should not be seen as picking and choosing membership based on what the 10 members can gain from Timor-Leste’s inclusion.
Malaysia is viewed as a country that has backed admission for the last remaining country in Southeast Asia that remains outside the bloc.
During Timor-Leste’s early years of independence, Malaysia provided support in areas of security, development of human resources and institutional capacity.
Malaysia was the first country to open a liaison office in Dili in April 2000 to facilitate closer relations with Timor-Leste. The office became the Malaysian Embassy on May 20, 2002, after Timor-Leste’s restoration of independence.
Timor-Leste also views Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as a global and regional statesman whose support would help thrust its membership into Asean. He was the first head of government to visit the country.
A high-level delegation led by the Dionisio da Costa Babo Soares, Timor-Leste’s Foreign Affairs Minister, is set to visit Putrajaya in July to lobby Malaysia’s support and get Mahathir’s endorsement for the country’s rightful place in Asean.