The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Timor Leste: ASEAN’s 11th Member?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on April 12, 2011

Timor-Leste recently lodged its application to become the 11th member of ASEAN. However, its members remain divided on the implications of welcoming the fledging nation as its newest recruit. Some are surely reminded of Myanmar’s problematic admission and the impact it has exacted on ASEAN’s perceived relevance. They see a fragile country, with a burgeoning population expected to double by 2040, poverty and worsening unemployment (likely to be compounded by the UN’s withdrawal in 2012), little progress or even regression on key socio-economic indicators since independence in 2002, and persistence of some political and security dynamics that contributed to the 2006 violence, prompting the establishment of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). Timor-Leste’s detractors are conscious of the impact the admission could have on ASEAN’s consolidation and community-building agenda, particularly its push for a single economic market by 2015. As a key opponent, Singapore worries it will widen the development gap and drag down ASEAN’s overall progress. One “nightmare scenario” that is touted: that ‘the entire integration project will unravel and Southeast Asia will be squeezed into irrelevance’.

On the other hand, Indonesia and Thailand are seen as ‘vanguards of support’, a historically ironic scenario for Indonesia given the violent relationship that reigned while Timor-Leste was a province of the archipelago. Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa has acknowledged fears related the derailment of community-building efforts, however has noted that Indonesia believes otherwise and sees a positive impact. He also argued that development gaps between ASEAN members were not a novel concept, citing differences between the founding members and Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as regional security considerations.

A desire to counter China’s growing presence in Timor is recognized by some as an important driver of Indonesia’s support. This growing presence doesn’t necessarily imply that the relationship is of strategic importance in terms of Timor-Leste’s foreign policy agenda. Nonetheless, it is reported that over the past four years, in the aftermath of the instability of 2006, China has tripled its level of investment as well as foreign aid to Timor-Leste. It has funded the construction of the Presidential Palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a new defense headquarters in Dili alongside numerous other infrastructure projects. It also sold two patrol vessels to Timor-Leste last year, leading to what one author termed the “saga of the Chinese boats”.

Ultimately, it is important to acknowledge that Timor-Leste is no stranger to its ASEAN neighbours. Many engaged in assistance efforts in the context of the post-referendum violence, and in successive years, to promote stability and strengthen the state’s institutions. Singapore, for instance, continues to be involved in a civilian police capacity and has promoted numerous capacity building programs under the Singapore Cooperation Programme.

Nonetheless, while ASEAN membership would give Timor-Leste’s development drive critical momentum, at the same time, with intimate knowledge of just how far Timor-Leste still has to go, concerned members are unlikely to be convinced of accepting the bid until well after the 2012 Timor-Leste elections and beyond.


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