By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
In a post on the MacArthur Foundation’s Asia Security Initiative blog today, my friend Michael Vatikiotis points out, at a very timely juncture, some of the arguments in favor of and against Timor Leste (East Timor) joining ASEAN in the near term. His balanced note clearly outlines the pros and cons. It is worth emphasizing two particular points, however.
First, Timor Leste’s accession to ASEAN should be led by Indonesia, so timing is important. If the ASEAN rotation holds, it would be another decade before Indonesia chairs the organization, which is too long to wait to bring in this new member. Indonesia’s role in this historic step is part of an existential reconciliation and is fundamentally important to being able to move on and build vibrant ties.
Next, from a strategic point of view, ASEAN should be binding in countries that are obviously part of its geography, history and culture. It does not serve long term regional security objectives to leave nations alone in the Asia Pacific region. Timor Leste will face serious challenges in meeting the growing demands that ASEAN members and its more serious integration efforts require, but that investment should start now in earnest. Alignment with ASEAN will help Timor Leste access capacity-building assistance and develop, early on, norms and standards that are consistent with its neighbors. This will help the country develop, and prevent the potential for countries seeking to secure long term energy resources from isolating it for their own purposes.
Timor Leste would certainly be one of ASEAN least developed countries, but in terms of governance and potential, it is already leaps and bounds ahead of the lowest common denominator, Burma (Myanmar). I agree with Michael Vatikiotis that it is indeed the right time to bring Timor Leste into the ASEAN family this year.