Timor-Leste: An Active Provider of Security to the ASEAN

Timor-Leste: An Active Provider of Security to the ASEAN post thumbnail image


The genesis of ASEAN was intended by its founding fathers as an organization primarily for economic and cultural cooperation. As the Association became further integrated, it developed into the field of politics (Sopiee, p 206).
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Critics suggest that its level of integration is extremely low in terms of the overall organization. However, the ASEAN system has still provided the guiding “noninterference policy” that has worked for the cooperation and accommodation of interests and policies among the ASEAN states. ASEAN has also provided the community with a robust policy “meat grinder”, the ASEAN process of continuous, repeated discussion and deliberation, and multilateral decision-making (Ibid, 208). Meat grinder wisdom and confidence is what lies behind the planned creation of ASEAN Political-Security Community in 2015.

The ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) is envisioned to create a regional security community aimed at promoting political and security cooperation among the ASEAN member states. It is an ambitious proposition to facilitate the existence of member states in peace and democratic harmony with one another, and with the world at large. Additionally, APSC is engineered to encourage political development in adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and good governance, as well as respect for and promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as inscribed in the ASEAN Charter (APSC Blueprint, p.5).

After 10 years of Independence, Timor-Leste is determined to be the eleventh member of ASEAN. A few ASEAN members, notably Singapore, still remains ambivalent about Timor-Leste’ capacity to assume full membership status. However, many ASEAN members, prominently Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, are politically welcoming of Timor-Leste’s bid to be an ASEAN member. Timor-Leste’s government has shown prodigious political will and diplomatic readiness by appointing Mr. Roberto Soares as the Deputy Minister for ASEAN. Supposedly Timor-Leste’s dream of ASEAN membership will be realized in 2013 (or sometime before APSC begins). What are the prospects and challenges present in Timor-Leste’s security situation, particularly before the concretization of the ASEAN Political-Security Community in 2015? We seek to examine, without polemical purpose and theoretical pretensions, the expected gains and risks for Timor-Leste in this area.

Timor-Leste’s ASEAN hope

Timor-Leste has always considered ASEAN a powerful regional organization since its independence in 2002. Regardless of its geographical aspects, ASEAN possesses political, security, and economic leverage beneficial for Timor-Leste’s interests. Therefore, since its birth as a sovereign nation a decade ago, Timor-Leste has maintained a healthy, harmonious, cooperative relationship with member countries in the region. Indonesia, which once occupied Timor-Leste for a quarter-century until 1999, has been a prominent supporter of the fledging nation in international forums. The Indonesia that was once a vicious foe has now become a close friend. The amity and people to people relationship is sturdier than ever before. Timor-Leste also wants to enjoy harmonious economic relations and security cooperation with all ASEAN members.

Timor-Leste has demonstrated plausible political will and worked earnestly to achieve ASEAN membership. As a fledging democratic country, Timor-Leste still needs all the support it can get to strengthen the country and to create a regional network. Following the conclusion of the UN mission last year, ASEAN will be the ideal regional organization to offer partnership and assistance in building the country, especially in the security and defense sector.

While traditional security issues such as the South China Sea (SCS) issue have reignited in Southeast Asia in recent years, progress has also been made on security cooperation between ASEAN and countries outside the region. The ongoing APSC challenge of the South China Sea involves several ASEAN members such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei. We believe this challenge should be resolved not through military confrontation and provocation, but should be addressed under the legal principles of the ASEAN Charter and according to International maritime law and through joint military cooperation.

The ASEAN Political-Security Community will serve as a de rigueur policy to address inter-boundary and transnational security issues in the region. Based on the First ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), cooperation would also be carried out in the areas of nontraditional security: maritime security, military medicine, peacekeeping operations, counterterrorism, and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (p.28). Therefore, we believe that both by choice and circumstance, Timor-Leste must seek regional interaction in a growing network of forums, coalitions and relationships – especially in the security sector. Timor-Leste is determined to be an active contributor, not a passive participant, in the creation of a regional security and defense community.

Security and Defense Cooperation

In his official visit last year, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Timor-Leste’s progress and consolidation of its security sector. It is apparent beyond any doubt that the task of guaranteeing security and defense constitutes a crucial challenge in the state-building process. Since its independence a decade ago, Timor-Leste has faced enormous challenges in strengthening its security and defense sector.
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Despite its security and defense institutions regrettably subverted in 2006 by an internal crisis, the institutions have functioned well according to its constitutional mandates and duties. There are two major ways to look at Timor-Leste’s security and defense: internal and external context. Internally, the consolidation of the security and defense have contributed to vast improvements.
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The 2006 crisis was a good wake-up call to reinforce the security and defense institutions, and they were successfully revived from the brink of violence and ignominy.

In the external context, the neighboring countries, namely Australia and Indonesia as well as ASEAN members at large, have an important impact on the country’s national security and defense sector. Timor-Leste security and defense institutions have enjoyed excellent bilateral military cooperation with its neighbors. It has maintained and increased military cooperation with some ASEAN members, notably Indonesia and the Philippines. The military and security cooperation bonds with Indonesia have broadened to include several defense and military issues such as maritime security, border control, military training, and expertise exchange. In the maritime area, there are issues that concern both countries, for instance illegal fishing. This military cooperation with Indonesia is an excellent example that needs to be adopted in cooperating with other ASEAN members on the APSC platform. As immediate neighbors, Timor-Leste and Indonesia are affected by shared transnational issues – including drugs, terrorism, human trafficking, and illegal entry. Therefore, we believe that APSC presents a regional rostrum for security and defense cooperation for Timor-Leste, with the ASEAN member countries, to answer the challenges in regional security and defense. Working closely with ASEAN members to enhance cooperation and to deal with nontraditional and traditional security issues will also impart a confidence boost to Timor-Leste.

Besides strengthening military to military cooperation, APSC will also provide an opportunity and legal platform to Timor-Leste to deal with non-military transnational problems. As the region becomes further integrated, the transnational problems require transnational solutions and cooperation. We believe Timor-Leste will inevitably be affected by the regional issues. Timor-Leste, in its capacity as a new country with limited quantity and quality of Security and Defense personnel forces, faces difficulting in resolving the transnational problems alone. It needs support and cooperation from the ASEAN members to solve such problems.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Timor-Leste is a destination country for international human trafficking; victims are mostly women and children brought across the land border with Indonesia. IOM and Alola Foundation data indicate that between 2008 and 2011, 33 women were trafficked from the ASEAN region: 13 from Myanmar, 8 from Indonesia, 6 from Cambodia, and 3 from China. This is an example of a major transnational issue that involves several countries in the region, and requires regional action and coordination. We believe APSC will provide the political cohesion in security to combat transnational crimes as a regional issue and not as a burden of any particular country. Therefore, APSC will ease Timor-Leste’s task in dealing with these problems by facilitating the cooperation and coordination of ASEAN members – the origin and destination countries of the victims.

The security cooperation of ASEAN members under the legal framework and guidelines of APSC will be extraordinarily beneficial for Timor-Leste’s security sector. It will not only strengthen the capacity building of the defense and security sector, it will also offer a friendly and cooperative solace to address transnational issues. Timor-Leste will further enjoy the increased closeness in bilateral intelligence and military cooperation, joint naval patrols, sea lanes cooperation with other ASEAN members.

Having said that, the challenges that Timor-Leste’s security and defense sector needs to address before joining APSC are enormous. These challenges include the elevation of professionalism, the building of human capacity, and the strengthening of institutional orientations. Therefore when the time comes, Timor-Leste will not only be a constant taker but an active, substantial giver to the security of the ASEAN community which ultimately ensures Timor-Leste’s security itself. Therefore Timor-Leste’s desire to assume permanent membership is not limitedly defined on the basis of geography but more on the basis of political, economic and security realities.


It is clear beyond any doubt that the projected future status of ASEAN membership will impart great advantages to Timor-Leste in the security arena. As a newly independent nation the task of continuing to strengthen security and defense remains a crucial challenge. The military and security cooperation bonds with ASEAN members at large will only become stronger if Timor-Leste assumes full membership status. Timor-Leste’s experience of nation building and peace building is recognized worldwide. Timor-Leste, once an importer of peacekeepers, has now become a net exporter of peacekeepers, as Timor-Leste has been actively participating in the U.N. peacekeeping missions. For instance Timor-Leste police and military personnel have served as UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and other UN Missions. The very recent example is the appointment of Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, former President, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Integrated Peace-building Office in Guinea-Bissau. Without a doubt, Timor-Leste will certainly contribute to the peace-building and peace-keeping mission in the ASEAN region. Fundasaun Mahein believe APSC will furthermore accommodate Timor-Leste’s interest to participate actively in ensuring security, peace, and harmony in the region.

2 thoughts on “Timor-Leste: An Active Provider of Security to the ASEAN”

  1. The above article has managed to descrite potential benefits of Timor-Leste’s eventual membership status in ASEAN, that has answered the question of ‘what’ after it is in. But the massive challenge is how to go about achieving those objectives, that is not clear yet, in my view’ in the government’s policies. Therefore, it is important for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation to lead an interministerial commission to undertake a study and formulate Timor-Leste’s Blueprint or White Paper for joining ASEAN, that way will assist the government to clearly articulate its strategic interest and what needs to be done to be as the piece said ‘active security provider’, not only the taker. It is certainly pleasing that the Program of the current government specially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation has decided to write up a White Paper as part of its five-year program. That is the only way to make sure that Timor-Leste is pursuing a unified interest and with coherent strategies.

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