Timor-Leste has long sought to join ASEAN. Timorese leaders regularly emphasize the economic and diplomatic benefits of participation in the regional organization, and the new government will almost certainly continue to pursue membership. Furthermore, most ASEAN member states support Timor-Leste’s accession because it has succeeded in fulfilling the necessary criteria. While FM agrees that ASEAN membership is desirable, FM also wants to emphasize that ASEAN’s elimination of visa and trade barriers could cause problems for Timor-Leste. The Timorese government must prepare for these risks in the event that they do enter the organization.
Joining ASEAN will mean that citizens from ASEAN member states can travel to Timor-Leste without a visa. This will likely cause a drastic increase in foreigners traveling to and residing in Timor-Leste, which can have positive and negative effects. On the one hand, ASEAN citizens can bring in much needed skills, particularly for the construction industry. On the other hand, organized crime groups already established in many ASEAN countries could see an opportunity to expand their activities into Timor-Leste.
Timor-Leste already has problems securing its borders, with widespread smuggling on the land border and little ability to patrol its coastline and territorial waters. The end of visa requirements could aggravate existing problems such as human trafficking and drug smuggling, particularly as organizations engaged in these activities already have a strong foothold in many ASEAN countries. Weapons smuggling is another potential problem.
Furthermore, while Timor-Leste has fortunately avoided international terrorism so far, more porous borders could increase this threat. In addition to potentially targeting Timor-Leste itself, terrorist groups could potentially use the country as an organizational base from which to attack targets throughout the Southeast Asia region. Ending visa restrictions as required by ASEAN could facilitate such developments.
To prevent these problems, Timor-Leste’s leaders must plan ahead. This country will fare much better if it takes a proactive approach, instead of merely addressing problems as they arise. Therefore, the Timorese government should improve the quality of its border security, counter terrorism, and migration control capacities. In particular, the authorities should strengthen security on the land border with Indonesia and at the Air Ports, and ports. They should also improve intelligence operations, partly through cooperation with the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries. Lastly, the security forces should develop better maritime security capabilities in order to combat existing problems with smuggling and illegal fishing.
In addition to security risks, ASEAN membership could cause economic problems. Timor-Leste currently lacks the economic capacity necessary to compete with ASEAN’s more industrialized member states. These countries could take advantage of this disparity to exploit Timor-Leste’s markets without bringing prosperity to the Timorese people themselves. To avoid this, the incoming government must consider how to make Timorese businesses more competitive and to encourage foreign investment that diversifies Timor-Leste’s domestic economy.
While Timor-Leste’s political elite has long desired ASEAN membership as a symbol of integration into the international community, they should thoroughly consider its real-world consequences beforehand. The government and security forces must improve the existing policies before entering ASEAN. FM believes in ASEAN membership, but only if it is pursued with caution and foresight.