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Timor-Leste's dwindling hopes of ASEAN accession

Image credit: apla kai omorfa (Flickr: Creative Commons)

2017 has been a year of milestones for Timor-Leste. At home, the young and hopeful nation successfully held both its presidential and parliamentary elections—lauded as being remarkably peaceful and democratic. On the world stage, the nation’s cult-hero and political figurehead, Xanana Gusmao, was celebrated as leading the disproportionately oil dependent nation (some 89% of GDP) to what seems to be a successful resolution of the Timor Sea dispute with Australia.

The resolution of the Timor Sea dispute and the demarcation of a permanent maritime boundary has arguably been one of the key facets of Timor-Leste’s foreign policy objectives. But now with clear progress being made at the Hague, how is Timor-Leste’s other key foreign policy objective—its accession into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—fairing?

Accession into ASEAN has been one of Timor-Leste’s key foreign policy objectives since achieving independence in 2002.The nation’s hopes were formalised in 2011 after submitting an application to ASEAN whilst it was under the chairmanship of Indonesia—a long-time supporter of Dili’s admission. In order to demonstrate its readiness, Timor-Leste has taken a number of key steps including joining the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005; acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2007 (however, the fact that Timor-Leste acceded to this treaty as a state ‘outside of South-East Asia’ raises questions about the nation’s own geographic ambiguity in the eyes of ASEAN); establishing embassies in all ASEAN member states; and opening its doors to three ASEAN and Dili-led feasibility studies. In 2016, Timor-Leste even hosted the ASEAN People’s Forum in which it holds an observer status.

Timor-Leste’s hopes have also been cemented on the domestic front; with the nation’s cornerstone 2011-2030 Strategic Development Plan envisaging the nation achieving full membership by 2015. Furthermore, Timor-Leste has established a dedicated government portfolio to ASEAN membership as well as an ASEAN secretariat in Dili.

So where does their membership stand? Six years into its application for ASEAN accession, Timor-Leste maintains observer status despite their best efforts. With the Philippines—being a strong supporter of Timor-Leste’s admission—chairing ASEAN this year, Timor Leste’s delegation came in with high hopes.

July’s successful parliamentary elections could arguably be hailed as a beacon of democracy amongst ASEAN’s diverse regime types. Timor-Leste’s ranking as the most democratic nation in Southeast Asia (and 43rd in the world) in 2016 only serves to reinforce this. Ironically however, it may in fact be the results of Timor-Leste’s praiseworthy elections that will be its undoing as ASEAN’s Coordinating Council Working Group (ACCWG) continues to contemplate Dili’s membership.

Timor-Leste’s domestic politics have been stuck in limbo since July’s parliamentary elections. Despite claiming a narrow victory over its nearest rival, Gusmao’s National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s FRETILIN party has been forced to form a constitutionally questionable minority government.

To add insult to injury, Gusmao has since led the formation of the Opposition Alliance with a Parliamentary Majority (AOMP) together with a number of minority parties in opposition. The AOMP has already used its majority in Parliament to block the FRETILIN-led government’s program once, increasing the likelihood of parliament being dissolved and fresh elections being called.

The obvious concern here, at least in the eyes of the ASEAN community, is that Timor-Leste’s admission into ASEAN in the midst of a political crisis at home would set a burdensome tone for the young nation’s entrance into ASEAN. Timor-Leste’s proven history of political violence, most notably in 2006, certainly doesn’t inspire confidence among member states which have already questioned Timor-Leste’s suitability (most notably Singapore). This is compounded by Timor-Leste’s oil-driven economy, which could possibly present a significant financial and political burden should the nation again succumb to political instability—detracting from broader regional security issues that the organisation is already well invested in.

Although ASEAN diplomatic sources have supposedly confirmed the delay of Timor-Leste’s admission into ASEAN for this year, the ACCWG is expected to meet next month in Bali to further discuss Dili’s case. Nothing can be ruled out just yet, but if Timor-Leste’s domestic political fiasco is anything to go by, then no clear breakthrough is on the horizon.

Dili’s case for accession is wavering at best. The sustainability of Alkatiri’s minority government is being questioned and the possibility of fresh elections is growing. Although the people of Timor-Leste deserve what they’ve strived to achieve over the past six years, their door into the ASEAN community has all but closed—for this year at least.

Patrick Dupont is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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