Timor-Leste’s integration into ASEAN and the art of diplomacy

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Ever since Timor-Leste gained restore full independence in 2002, the political elite has been intent on becoming a member nation of ASEAN. It has taken two decades of persistent international diplomacy to overcome the opposition of some ASEAN members to Timor’s proposed ASEAN integration. From the time Timor’s formal application was submitted in 2011, Timor has endeavoured to meet ASEAN prerequisites: it has become signatory to various international treaties, established embassies in all ten member nations, modified the domestic administrative and legal systems to match ASEAN regulations, embraced ASEAN’s security, economic and cultural frameworks, and, in general, committed to ASEAN objectives, values, and modes of diplomatic conduct––Timor has followed ‘the ASEAN way’.

In late 2022, Timor was finally accepted as a provisional ASEAN member with ‘observer status’, to be followed by full membership status given the fulfilment of certain requirements. It is not clear, however, when, how and by what criterion the final decision to admit Timor-Leste as the full eleventh member will be reached. ASEAN negotiations and decision-making goes on behind closed doors. A single member nation retracting its support could derail Timor’s bid, halting its accession. Inadequate diplomatic efforts from Timor-Leste could therefore lead ASEAN to re-evaluate Timor’s participation within the organization.

It is in this delicate context that Fundasaun Mahein finds the Timorese Prime Minister’s recent announcement about ASEAN and Myanmar astonishing and dangerous. Last week, after his weekly meeting with the President (03/08/2023), José Ramos Horta––who has led the campaign abroad for Timor’s ASEAN accession––, the Prime Minister announced that “so long as I am Prime Minister”, Timor’s position on ASEAN is such that “if ASEAN does not have the power to negotiate with the Myanmar’s military junta, Timor will not join ASEAN”. The Prime Minister was not only stating a fact, but a condition: “Timor can not yet become an ASEAN member if that condition is not met, because Timor does not want to support a military dictatorship.” (“ASEAN La Konvense Junta Militar, Timor La Tama”, Suara Timor Lorosae, pp. 1, 11).

FM considers this misguided diplomacy. Timor-Leste is not in a position to be delivering ultimatums or conditions to ASEAN. Timor has always wanted ASEAN more than ASEAN has wanted Timor. In fact, Timor-Leste is practically irrelevant for ASEAN. ASEAN has a population of 600 million, whereas Timor-Leste’s population is about 1.35 million; Timor-Leste therefore represents 0.2 percent of the ASEAN population. Geographically, ASEAN covers 45 million square kilometres, while Timor-Leste covers about 15,000; ASEAN is 3,000 times larger. Economically, Timor-Leste’s nominal GDP is infinitesimal compared to ASEAN’s GDP: just 0.075 percent (1). In terms of natural resources, Timor has nothing to offer ASEAN. Timor-Leste has little in the way of infrastructure, human resources and political stability with which to tempt ASEAN investors. Poverty levels in Timor are high and the economy is 95% reliant on finite oil reserves and revenue, with few prospects for a diversified economy. For good reason, ASEAN (with the exception of Indonesia) has never shown any enthusiasm about Timor-Leste coming in to the ASEAN fold. If the art of diplomacy is to negotiate in a way which is proportionate to one’s power and influence, FM feels that the Prime Minister is not performing very well. Timor must negotiate from a position of weakness.

Timor-Leste also needs to remember why it has petitioned ASEAN for twenty years. Remaining separate from the rest of Southeast Asia will ensure isolation. Timor stands to gain from ASEAN integration in terms of security, economic development and employment, environmental and disaster management, cultural exchange, amplifying Timor’s voice on the world stage, developing a regional identity, and balancing the competing interests of the big powers (USA and China). Although it is impossible to quantify exactly how much Timor will benefit from ASEAN membership in the short-, medium and long-term, the national political consensus within Timor-Leste on the desirability of ASEAN membership has rarely been questioned. With his recent rash statements, the Prime Minister comes to resemble a unilateralist, autocratic outlier.

Timor-Leste’s diplomats have always operated within the constraints of ASEAN doctrine. One of ASEAN’s founding principles is non-interference in the domestic politics of member nations. ASEAN is constituted by a mix of authoritarian and semi-democratic systems––even among the latter group, human rights issues are rife. ASEAN has developed its own ways of raising domestic political issues with members. Timor-Leste has no choice but to accommodate ‘the ASEAN way’. This does not mean avoiding raising issues. Rather, it means finding artful ways to influence members or express disapproval (about Myanmar specifically and human rights more generally). So long as Timor-Leste has ‘observer status’, our political leaders must be tactful and restrained. After full membership status is secured, Timor-Leste will be in a stronger position to broach delicate matters and to exert a measure of influence over ASEAN strategy and foreign domestic politics; as consummated eleventh member, tiny, undeveloped, and powerless Timor-Leste will, sooner or later, have a relatively prominent voice. In the meantime, however, we will have to exercise forbearance and tolerance when dealing with our more authoritarian co-members.

Timor-Leste can be proud of its democracy. However, it should not go boasting about its democratic credentials, as the Prime Minister has done, and implicitly denigrating ASEAN members in the process. While Timor-Leste ranks as one of the more democratic and human rights-respecting nations in Southeast Asia, it has no reason to gloat. It has experienced one major political crisis (2006–2007) and intermittent political instability ever since. It is beset by constant street-level conflict and crime. If one examines the nature of democracy, it has almost no basis in policy, as an advanced democracy would, but rather in party allegiances, long-standing rivalries and even martial arts group membership. Political patronage is rife, government is highly corrupt, and meritocratic principles are practically absent. Not coincidentally, the concentration of wealth is shocking, poverty is entrenched, and health, education and infrastructure are dismal. By many measures, Timor is performing worse than other ASEAN nations. What is so special about Timor’s democracy if it fails to create a better life for all, good and honest governance, a more equitable distribution of wealth and power? Modesty, humility and realism are powerful diplomatic tools in ASEAN; arrogance is not.

FM offers several messages to our political leaders and diplomats. The first message is that Timorese diplomacy regarding ASEAN integration should proceed with the kind of regional and political sensitivity that has characterised the vast majority of the negotiations with ASEAN over the last two decades; we need to continue the good work and rest firm with our commitments. Next, Timorese politicians need to do more of what they have tended to overlook, namely to assess and discuss, realistically, what the benefits, challenges and costs of ASEAN integration will be. In other words, politicians need to think clearly about Timorese interests and how ASEAN integration can best serve the people of this country. FM recognises that the ASEAN question has been largely an elite project. Timorese government and civil society therefore need to draw the Timorese people into the discussion about what ASEAN is all about and what can be expected of it.

What we do not need are apparently thoughtless statements from our top leader that undermine Timor-Leste’s admission to ASEAN. What we DO need is informed discussion and debate. Timor-Leste diplomats have worked hard to get Timor to this point of ‘observer status’. Now, more than ever, excellent diplomacy is called for.


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