ASEAN: The Potential to Improve Timor-Leste’s Security?

ASEAN: The Potential to Improve Timor-Leste’s Security? post thumbnail image

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For many years, the government of Timor-Leste has been courting ASEAN with the eventual goal of becoming a member. Timor-Leste believes that membership will bring increased political, economic and security stability. However, FM’s focus remains predominantly on the issue of security. Currently, Timor-Leste’s security sector is still undergoing reform and development, rendering its system potentially vulnerable to exploitation by malicious parties. Not only is security still evolving in terms of development and professionalism, but the current socio-economic situation leaves doubts about the future stability of Timorese society. The question then arises: What effects might ASEAN membership have on the future of Timor-Leste’s security?

Timor-Leste has reason to be concerned; a large and mostly unpatrolled coastline makes it relatively easy to smuggle goods into the country, creating an attractive transit route for illicit goods and human trafficking organizations. Furthermore, FM has already observed issues in Timor-Leste’s customs security on land, air, and sea transit points, potentially making it worryingly easy for organized crime to corrupt and exploit deficiencies in Timor-Leste’s security sector. This also raises questions of whether the new Tibar port development will increase the risk of trafficked illicit goods, especially considering that Timor-Leste’s customs service is already struggling to identify illicit goods in its current capacity. In addition to this, youth unemployment stands at roughly 10% nationwide and significantly more in urban centres, which may allow transnational crime networks to easily establish themselves: bored and penniless youth make good recruits for organized criminal networks. Not only this, but we may see increased drug use amongst the young as they become unoccupied, poor, and increasingly desperate. Criminal organizations may thus be able to build a market for illicit goods and a recruiting pool in Timor-Leste in addition to using it as a transit point. There is therefore the hope that ASEAN membership could assist in alleviating the burden of these issues.

In 2005, Timor-Leste joined the ASEAN Regional Forum, acceding in 2007 to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia. Its first membership bid was made on the 4th of March 2011. Since then, high-ranking Timorese government officials have made repeated state visits to ASEAN countries with the hope of gaining support. Furthermore, Timor-Leste already has experience in hosting high-level defense conferences for the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, which lands it in good stead for future cooperation with ASEAN.

Even so, eight years on from the initial application, acceptance into the bloc is still under consideration. Many nations of ASEAN have been supportive of Timor-Leste’s accession; however, several have held reservations. In recent years this apprehensiveness has been attributed largely to Singapore, who has cited concerns that Timor-Leste’s lack of economic development may prove financially burdensome to the organization. In 2019, the possibility of Timor-Leste’s membership remains ambiguous, with member states maintaining that they are continuing discussions and feasibility studies on Timor-Leste’s potential to be accepted. Moreover, membership of ASEAN would come with several implications and obligations for the security sector, and the security of Timor-Leste.

With this being the case, Timor-Leste should assess ASEAN membership’s potential effects on security and defense. Especially considering increasing evidence (including reporting by FM) of the existence of transnational drug, firearms, and human trafficking organizations operating within Timor-Leste’s land and maritime jurisdiction, better cooperation in intelligence sharing and general crime fighting is of great importance. Beginning in 1999, ASEAN member states adopted a cooperative plan of action to target transnational crime; this agreement was further tightened and solidified in 2017, a process that included further details on planned cooperation between 2016 and 2030. ASEAN’s focus on combating organized crime might thus prove highly beneficial to Timor-Leste.

In addition to this, FM has observed the marginal potential for terrorist groups to establish themselves in Timor-Leste, especially as problems with terrorism are widespread throughout the region – including ASEAN states, particularly Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. With this in mind, Timor-Leste’s rugged terrain could provide an attractive place for extremist organizations to establish themselves. Currently, Timor-Leste lacks sufficient resources to combat terrorism, particularly international terror networks; joining ASEAN and cooperating more closely in security and defense may therefore assist in deterring insurgent groups.

Furthermore, ASEAN membership may result in greater extradition rights for Timorese citizens. Given the recent case of the Timorese couple arrested for drug trafficking in Atambua, Indonesia, this is becoming an increasingly pertinent issue.

FM has also previously stated that ASEAN may help bring an increased sense of professionalism to its security sector. Closer cooperation with ASEAN could bring additional benefits in security expertise (outside those currently afforded by the UN, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, the US, and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries). For example, Timor-Leste could make use of the additional external and internal training and support provided by ASEAN, as well as the functional bodies and forums dealing with security issues that ASEAN already supports. For example, the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement, the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok, or the South-East Asia Center for Counter Terrorism in Kuala Lumpur, could act as important resources to increase the professionalism of Timor-Leste’s security sector. However, these opportunities are dependent on a number of internal and external factors.

For instance, there are challenges that Timor-Leste’s security sector may face if it joins ASEAN. First, corruption and professionalism within the PNTL is a persistent threat which could undermine future cooperation. Second, Timor-Leste must ensure that it is able to effectively communicate with ASEAN on matters of security, including creating appropriate diplomatic channels. Also, given that the common language of ASEAN is English, efforts to improve necessary language skills for higher ranking officials would be required. Third, Timor-Leste should attempt to ensure that the development of its security sector does not become excessively financially burdensome on ASEAN. Finally, infrastructure development is also extremely important in order to deal with the increased traffic ASEAN will inevitably bring, from roads, to airports, to accommodation.

However, citizens of Timor-Leste should keep in mind that ASEAN does not provide the only route to the development of security. Organized crime is certainly becoming a problem, but it is possible that agreements could be made outside of ASEAN to better share intelligence and cooperate in the fields of security and defense with strategic partner countries. In terms of greater advocacy for security issues pertinent to Timor-Leste, ASEAN membership could be of benefit. However, as larger ASEAN members are currently preoccupied with issues elsewhere – such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea and terrorism – Timor-Leste will have to fight to ensure that its voice does not become lost for the foreseeable future.


1. Facilitate public discussion about the benefits of ASEAN membership.
2. The government should begin to assign and train appropriate officials to prepare for future cooperation with partner states and/or ASEAN.
3. If membership of ASEAN cannot be secured in the near future or is undesirable, the government of Timor-Leste should look towards alternative security agreements. For example, ASEAN Plus Three, or a discussion of security agreements and cooperation with Australia and China.
4. If membership of ASEAN is secured, the government should look to make full use of the resources it brings as soon as possible. This is in the interests of both Timor-Leste and ASEAN’s future security.
5. The government should begin to construct infrastructure to accommodate the increased traffic ASEAN would bring in terms of airports, security, and accommodation.
6. Corruption in Timor-Leste’s security sector should continue to be tackled ensuring that any benefits of future enhanced cooperation would be fully utilized.

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