ASEAN leaders support East Timor’s accession “in principle”. What does this actually mean?

On Friday, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries statement It announced that it would “in principle” support East Timor’s admission as the 11th member state. Does this mean that the long road East Timor has been waiting for to join ASEAN is finally over? The short answer is not complete.

It is a positive development that all 10 ASEAN countries – Cambodia (the current ASEAN chair), Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam – appear to have agreed to the move. However, the statement was not clear about when and how East Timor would achieve full membership.

Timor-Leste will not join the association immediately. You will be granted observer status and will be allowed to participate in ASEAN meetings. The only other state with observer status is Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Since its independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has existed outside the institutions that define the region, despite being widely considered a country in Southeast Asia. When incorporated in Indonesia, it was also considered to belong to ASEAN.

A rocky road to East Timor’s accession

Timor-Leste first applied for membership in 2011, when Indonesia was the chair of ASEAN. Successive Timorese governments have wanted to join ASEAN for the country to move forward. nation, security, economy It mitigates some of the vulnerabilities that come from being a small country in an increasingly contested region.

2011 East Timor strategic development plan It envisions becoming a full member of ASEAN by 2015.

One of the challenges for Dilli was convincing Southeast Asian leaders of the value it would bring to the association. Technically, ASEAN Charter Defines four criteria for membership.

  • geographic location
  • Approved by other states
  • Agreement bound by the ASEAN Charter
  • Ability and willingness to perform membership obligations.

This is the last and most annoying criterion.

As a consensus-based body, all 10 existing ASEAN member states must agree to East Timor’s recognition. This is not an easy task as these states have different national interests, political systems and levels of economic and social development. This contributes to the perception that ASEAN is slow-moving and fragmented on key issues. South China Sea and the Myanmar crisis.

East Timor’s growing ties with China have sparked speculation that East Timor could become a ‘Trojan horse’ for the Chinese government within ASEAN. This exaggerated China’s influence at home and underestimated Dili’s desire for foreign policy independence.

There were also concerns about further expansion of ASEAN, and concerns about domestic instability and conflict, given some of the dilemmas presented by Myanmar’s accession.

Singapore in particular was skeptical about East Timor’s economic and political prospects. There were also concerns that Timor-Leste’s accession would undermine plans to achieve greater goals. economic integration whole block.

Given this history, this announcement raises some interesting questions. Has Singapore’s leadership changed its view of East Timor’s member states? If so, why?

Does ASEAN consider Timor-Leste ‘ready’ for membership?

Over the past decade, Timor-Leste has undergone a series of reviews on its suitability as an ASEAN member. ASEAN has three pillars of her community: political security, economics and socio-cultural. In 2016, the Community Pillar engaged in its own research and found that Timor-Leste needed capacity building to meet its membership requirements.Since then, the pillar has been completed fact-finding mission Evaluate Timor-Leste’s reforms and human resource capacity.

Several ASEAN joint communiqu├ęs have framed Timor-Leste’s future membership qualifications in terms of ‘capacity building’. 2021.

However, the exact criteria for ASEAN’s accession to Timor-Leste remain unclear. In a statement, ASEAN leaders formalized a “criteria-based roadmap based on objective facts” for full accession of Timor-Leste, including “milestones” that Timor-Leste must achieve. We aim to adopt the roadmap at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in 2023, which will be chaired by Indonesia.

The final point of agreement is perhaps the most obvious. Leaders pledged to help Timor-Leste build the capacity to achieve the milestones set on the roadmap. It appears that at least some ASEAN leaders believe that Timor-Leste is not yet ready for membership and needs further assistance to meet its membership criteria.

The continued emphasis on capacity building and the lack of a clear timeline could mean the announcement is another stalling tactic.

But more optimistically, ASEAN might be seen as an institution that should make incremental progress as a positive step forward. Given some concerns about Timor-Leste’s capacity, having the ten countries agree in principle is itself a major achievement.

This decision is based on the fact that ASEAN Not divided and dysfunctional As its critics point out. ASEAN leaders recognize their readiness to work together to ensure that Timor-Leste achieves its long-standing membership ambitions.

Associate Professor Rebecca Strutting, La Trobe Asia Director, La Trobe University

Rebecca Strating is currently funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the US Department of State, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and the Australia-Japan Foundation.