By Liam Hanlon
As Brunei assumes ASEAN’s chairmanship for 2013, one major question it faces is Timor-Leste’s bid for membership in the group. Despite some ASEAN members’ previous resistance to Timor-Leste’s entrance, the country’s sustained political and economic development over the last year and a half reflect a maturing nation poised for ascension to ASEAN. Brunei has a genuine opportunity to build ASEAN’s inclusiveness and invest in a nation that will pay dividends in the future.
Singapore contended in April 2011 that Timor-Leste’s fledgling institutions and dearth of human capital would make it difficult for ASEAN to pursue its policy of economic integration by 2015. ASEAN’s failure to integrate, Singapore said, would render the organization irrelevant, particularly as India and China continue to grow. Less developed members, 2012 chair Cambodia among them, also worried that Timor-Leste’s inclusion would further divide ASEAN’s available development and capacity-building assistance.
Fast-forward to December 2012. Timor-Leste has experienced impressive progress along political, security, and economic lines, and has begun to assuage regional anxieties. International observers in March closely watched Timor-Leste’s presidential election proceed without violence or substantial claims of fraud, confirming the wisdom of decisions by the United Nations and the Australian-led International Stabilization Force to withdraw peacekeeping units by the end of the year. Timor-Leste has also reined in corruption, improving from 143rd to 113th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Timor-Leste is also increasing its regional and global profile. It participated in a historic trilateral meeting November 9 with Indonesia and Australia, generating ideas for increased cooperation and development. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa reaffirmed Indonesia’s support for Timor-Leste’s ASEAN bid, and spotlighted its recent appointment of a deputy minister for ASEAN affairs as an indication of its seriousness. U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton also endorsed Timor-Leste’s bid in her September visit, and became the first secretary-level U.S. official to visit the country since its 2002 independence.
But capacity remains an issue for Timor-Leste. Despite a Singaporean program to train close to 400 Timorese officials, it remains to be seen whether the country has the institutional and human capacity to take on the almost 1,000 annual ASEAN-related meetings.
Timor-Leste’s economy, which is uncomfortably dependent on oil and gas revenues, also remains problematic. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and almost 20 percent is unemployed. Education and health indicators remain some of the worst in the region. The withdrawal of international forces may also have unintended consequences, as the exodus will destroy more than 2,000 jobs.
But ASEAN has in the past accepted countries with as many shortcomings, and arguably less progress, than Timor-Leste. This was the case with the entrance of then-pariah state Myanmar and impoverished Laos in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. ASEAN chose to invest in those countries with the understanding that their inclusion could help them normalize and develop, and help boost the grouping’s role in regional affairs.
ASEAN leaders should assume the same mentality for Timor-Leste. In the short term, Timor-Leste will likely benefit more from joining ASEAN than vice versa. But over the long term, another politically stable member will likely strengthen the overall organization and help ASEAN maintain influence in the region. Perhaps more importantly, another democratic member state committed to the rule of law could prove key in ASEAN’s necessary evolution to a more proactive and majoritarian organization.
Singapore will host the third ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group meeting on Timor-Leste’s bid in early 2013. Brunei as the ASEAN chair should take the reins and ensure that the meeting is used to move the ball on Timor-Leste’s membership. Even if bringing the country into the fold in 2013 proves unworkable, keeping up the momentum to do so will benefit both ASEAN and Timor-Leste.
Mr. Liam Hanlon is a Researcher with the CSIS Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.