Luke Hunt, Phnom Penh – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Aug 3 that he was confident Timor-Leste would become the 11th member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by next year, shelving plans to shepherd the tiny state into the bloc under his stewardship.
"Timor-Leste's accession process is advancing well and I am optimistic that by next year we could welcome this country to the ASEAN family," Hun Sen, who currently holds the rotating chair of ASEAN, said during the opening ceremony of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting.
Hun Sen had previously expressed his confidence that Timor-Leste, a tiny Catholic nation, would be admitted this year but sources told UCA News that there were concerns over its membership, which included Dili's ability to fund its membership and its relationship with Beijing.
"Two things matter," one source close to the negotiations said. "First is whether or not Timor-Leste can afford to pay for the costs associated, which includes hosting big forums like this. The second is that it is seen as too close to China.
"China has managed to grow its influence within the bloc, particularly through Cambodia over the past decade and ASEAN is split over issues like the disputes in the South China Sea and some in the group aren't ready for Timor-Leste," he said.
Its membership bid might also have been tainted by the Timorese government's refusal to vote on a United Nations General Assembly resolution against the Myanmar junta last year.
As reported by UCA News in Jakarta this had not only angered many, including democracy activists at home, but jeopardized its bid to join ASEAN.
It likely abstained from voting against the junta's violence to win support from Myanmar and Cambodia – which made a failed bid as ASEAN chair to normalize ties with the junta earlier this year – for accelerated acceptance into the bloc.
Membership has been a cherished dream for the impoverished country of just 1.3 million people, ever since it submitted its official application in 2011.
Membership would grant Dili access to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). This would partially open up its market to 683 million people and enable Timorese to travel and work across Southeast Asia in industries like tourism and manufacturing.
Hun Sen noted that Timor-Leste was the youngest nation in the region since obtaining independence from Indonesia in 2002 and had "shown her commitment" to joining ASEAN, first mooted in 2007.
Indonesia has indicated it would back Timor-Leste's entry to the bloc and Jakarta is scheduled to take its turn at the ASEAN helm next year, which could bode well for Dili's membership.
As this year's chair of ASEAN, Phnom Penh is currently hosting the 10 foreign ministers from ASEAN and those from dialogue partners including Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Russia.