REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Is an Asean 12 possible - with Timor-Leste?


Numbers matter in international politics. In the Asean context, they are even more vital as its members are currently limited only to 10. In the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asean 10 has to pair up with Europe 27. At the upcoming ASEM meeting in Brussels early next month, Russia, Australia and New Zealand will be inducted as new members. Often times, the word Asean causes confusion as in Asean Regional Forum (ARF), where the majority members are non-Asean.

Asean could indeed become a bigger organisation overnight with new members from Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea if the grouping so desired. Problem is, Asean has no plans to enlarge the grouping at this juncture. When Timor-Leste gained independence in 1999, there was intense excitement about the prospect of an 11th member of Asean. The oil and gas rich nation with its democratic potential would increase the grouping's saliency and international profile. Now more than a decade has elapsed, that hope has gradually faded away.

The current Timor-Leste leaders know full well that joining Asean would be the best way to integrate with the Southeast Asian region. But progress has been slow. Before the Hanoi ministerial meeting in July this year, Asean could easily be blamed for lacking a clear consensus on its membership. Burma was the last country to drop its opposition paving the way for Timor-Leste to join Asean. (After the Nargis cyclone hit Burma, Dili handed out US$500,000 dollars to help the victims.) For years, President Jose Ramos Horta (the former foreign minister) has been reiterating that Asean membership was a top priority and he was hoping to achieve it in 2012.

For the time being, it is not certain whether that will happen as it depends very much on Timor-Leste's overall preparation and readiness. At the recent Asean senior official meeting in Vietnam, it was agreed that the 2012 timeframe was unrealistic as lots of work was needed from the Timor-Leste side, especially on human resources, English-speaking officials and coordination among various ministries. Now 2015 or after is the new date.

Interestingly, Asean this time has paid very close attention to this country's prospective membership, trying to avoid mistakes from previous enlargement from 1995-1999 that increased the Asean membership from six to ten. More than the core members would like to admit, the rapid enlargement has yielded far-reaching unpredictable consequences on the building of the Asean Community. At that time political expediency was one key factor used to induct new members.

For instance, Asean welcomed Vietnam due to its desire to incorporate the second largest armed forces in Asia and exploit the region's second largest untapped market. In a similar vein, Burma was admitted on a fast track due to the grouping's ambition to contain China's influence. The alert was flagged in 1995.

Despite some human resources shortcomings, Timor-Leste enjoys outstanding assets. Apart from its energy-resource wealth, the new member can strengthen the voice of democracy within the grouping - however the country would take time to further consolidate its own democratic institutions. Furthermore, it can serve as a link between Asean and the South Pacific. Previously this was a contentious point. President Horta, when serving as foreign minister, used to say that it was more natural for his country to join the South Pacific forum, which also includes Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands.

Timor-Leste's political turmoil and unsettling governance has caused great concern. Even though the Asean members in general are sympathetic to the country's plight, they want to make sure that Timor-Leste is well prepared before joining Asean. No other new members have received such assistance and attention as in the case of Dili.

Timor-Leste plans to apply formerly for membership next year during the Indonesian chair. Soon, the Asean Secretariat will dispatch an assessment team to evaluate its readiness to join Asean. Separately, the Asean senior officials will also visit Dili and consult with officials there on how to prepare for an eventual membership.

By the end of next year, Timor-Leste plans to open five more foreign missions in Asean. It already has embassies in Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Foreign ministers from Burma, Indonesia and Singapore have visited Dili. In addition, for the first time, it will host an Asean-related event--the meeting of ARF Experts and Eminent Persons later this year.

But no country has suffered from Asean's ignorance more than Papua New Guinea (PNG) which has persistently expressed a keen interest to embrace Asean. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' meeting in Singapore in November last year, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare reiterated his country's desire to join Asean. During his official visit to Manila in March, he also raised the membership issue with former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo.

After 1986, PNG was given observer status as the first non-Asean country to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Asean amended its protocol for such a purpose. Truth be told, all Asean members have rejected PNG's longstanding request on the grounds that it is not a Southeast Asian country- that it is within the purview of the South Pacific. Earlier, Timor-Leste was perceived that way as well.

As time goes by, Dili's engagement with Asean increases many-fold with growing acceptance. In addition, Indonesia's democratisation has given more recognition to the world's youngest democracy.

One key reason why PNG wants to join Asean is to counter influence and pressure from Australia. During his visit to PNG in March, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reportedly backed PNG's membership in Asean.

For the time being, Asean has to put up a brave face and do a lot of explaining as geographical location is no longer a big obstacle. Many countries outside the Asean region have become founding members of Asean-initiated forums.


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