Four years on since Timor Leste formally applied to become a member-state of ASEAN, the dream of uniting all Southeast Asian nation-states under the ASEAN umbrella has yet to materialize. The fact that Timor Leste continues to be the notable exception to ASEAN’s list of membership was recently highlighted following the official visit of Timorese Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo to Indonesia recently.

On the sidelines of the visit, which included a stop at the ASEAN Secretariat, it was revealed that Timor Leste would be granted observer status at the 27th ASEAN Summit later this year. While observer status falls short of full membership, it is perhaps the best Dili can expect for now given the challenges it still faces.
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It is commonly thought that it is the burden of Timor Leste to prove its assets to the regional organization.

Indeed, Timor Leste’s application has intrigued, fascinated and divided the many stakeholders involved with ASEAN. Why is it important for Timor Leste to join ASEAN?

Arguably the answer is two fold. On the one hand ASEAN membership will clearly afford benefits to Timor Leste. After its traumatic struggle for independence and initial painful years of nationhood, membership provides a key chance for national reconciliation.

Indeed Dili stated that it “views membership in ASEAN as an integral part of our national efforts in peace consolidation.” Timor Leste stands to benefit from an ASEAN economy valued at approximately US$1.5 trillion and a customer base of 600 million people.

In the short to medium-term, membership would provide key access to funds for national development through programs like the Initiative for ASEAN Integration aimed at narrowing the development gap between ASEAN member-states.

Lastly it will enable Timor Leste to have a greater and stronger presence on the international stage by virtue of joining a 10 member-state strong association that after the Bali Concord III of 2011 seeks a “more coordinated, cohesive, and coherent ASEAN position on global issues of common interest and concern.” Timor Leste would thus benefit from having its national interests and concerns protected under the ASEAN umbrella.

On the other hand, a more intriguing discussion concerns the benefits Timor Leste’s admittance affords to ASEAN itself. It is commonly thought that it is the burden of Timor Leste to prove its assets to the regional organization. However such an argument ignores the potential contribution of Timor Leste to the ASEAN regional integration project. For example, its sovereign wealth fund (largely derived from its petroleum resources) is estimated to reach over $20 billion in the next decade.

Failing to admit and assist Timor Leste, ASEAN may reveal itself as being incapable of solving problems in its “own backyard” given that the former is geographically, historically and culturally a part of Southeast Asia.

From a strategic and security point of view, it does not make sense to leave Timor Leste outside of the ASEAN family. To do so risks the development of Timorese norms and standards inconsistent with those of ASEAN’s that may threaten, however small, the crucial regional peace and security that has enabled ASEAN to prosper.

Indeed it has been suggested that Timor Leste’s long-term interests lie with other regional powers. Such a suggestion will surely worry ASEAN and is reminiscent of the argument made in favor of opening ASEAN membership to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, the CLMV countries, to counter the potential dominance of non-ASEAN actors in the region. For example, a number of government buildings in Dili including the Presidential Palace and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been constructed and funded by China as a “gift”.

Failure to admit Timor Leste therefore risks ASEAN’s centrality and relevance in the regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century. In the face of China and India’s rise as well as the United States greater interest in the region, this is something ASEAN simply cannot afford to lose.

Significant obstacles indeed remain and understandable opposition exists toward allowing Timor Leste to join ASEAN. Nevertheless the case in favor of Timor Leste’s membership of ASEAN is clear.

As such it is very much hoped that the outcome of ASEAN’s ongoing assessment of Dili’s application will one day lead to the people of Timor Leste joining hands with neighbors in the Southeast Asian region as fellow ASEAN citizens.
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A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, Jakarta , October 11 2015
The writer is head of the ASEAN Studies Program, The Habibie Center in Jakarta. The views expressed are his own.

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