Singapore – Timor-Leste's president Jose Ramos-Horta recently declared his hope that his country would become the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) eleventh member in 2023 when Indonesia chairs the regional grouping.
ASEAN is rapidly running out of excuses to further delay Timor-Leste's 2011 application for membership, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for its existing members to welcome the region's youngest nation-state.
Some observers might have a strong sense of deja vu. The last time that Indonesia was ASEAN Chair, in 2011, Ramos-Horta had beseeched the organisation to let Timor-Leste, then a nine-year-old nation-state, join its ranks.
Even back then, his arguments were sound. The fledgling state had addressed most of the "four requirements" for membership stated in Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter.
First, Timor-Leste is clearly part of Southeast Asia. Today, 20 years after its founding, this nation-state has won recognition from all 10 ASEAN member states (AMS).
The last two requirements concern the agreement to be bound by the Charter and willingness to carry out membership obligations. Timor-Leste has repeatedly indicated that it is more than willing to fulfil its sundry ASEAN obligations.
Questions about Timor-Leste's diplomatic and economic capacity
The key stumbling block, it would seem, mostly involves AMS' reservations about whether Timor-Leste has the "capacity" to fulfil the onerous obligations that all AMS bear in terms of hosting meetings and other bureaucratic demands.
While this might have been uncertain in 2002, or even 2011, this is less of an objection today. By 2016, Timor-Leste had already established diplomatic missions in all ten ASEAN capitals, and there is an ASEAN Secretariat in Dili.
Interestingly, Cambodia – the ASEAN chair this year – has repeatedly voiced its support for Timor-Leste to join ASEAN. Indonesia is also broadly supportive and Ramos-Horta is right to assume that Timor-Leste's chances of being admitted would be higher under Indonesia's 2023 ASEAN chairmanship than at any other time, given the two countries' historical connections.
To wait another decade could deny Timor-Leste the diplomatic and economic boost that it needs for its next phase of national development.
In its development plans for 2011 to 2030, Timor-Leste's vision for post-independence growth focuses on infrastructure, poverty alleviation, and improving telecommunications and connectivity. There remains much to be done in these key areas.
Some critics might take issue with Timor-Leste's deep trade deficit with ASEAN and its over-dependence on oil and gas income.
By one account, from 2016 to 2019, more than half of Timor-Leste's US$2.05 billion expenditure on imports went to five ASEAN economies, while its exports of goods and services in the same period to ASEAN was just US$95 million. A 2017 report noted objections from Singapore and Laos, especially about Timor-Leste's economic capacity.
However, these objections are no longer as valid, given that the entire region is collectively recovering from the external shocks of the pandemic and Russia's unjustified invasion of Ukraine.