Hunter Marston – At the 41st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2022, the leaders of the grouping agreed 'in principle' to admit Timor-Leste as their 11th member.
While Dili's accession has been a long time coming, with it first applying for membership in 2011, it still has certain criteria to fulfil before membership is guaranteed. Timor-Leste's ascension also has important implications for ASEAN and the country's role in regional diplomacy.
The context of Timor-Leste's ASEAN ascension is worth bearing in mind. The reasons are threefold. First, ASEAN's decision to admit Timor-Leste comes at a time of mounting regional uncertainty and concerns over how the bloc will respond to international crises. These include growing US – China rivalry and Myanmar's unresolved civil war since the military coup in February 2021.
Second, Timor-Leste will join a minority of democracies within ASEAN, alongside Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, introducing a counterweight to the group's authoritarian majority. Third, Timor-Leste's ascension comes at a time of internal division in ASEAN and organisational drift. ASEAN critics abound and some prominent figures are concerned that adding a new member will undermine ASEAN centrality and weaken its ability to form consensus on major issues.
Timor-Leste's accession comes amid several geopolitical challenges confronting the bloc. ASEAN has struggled to assert its centrality and agency against a backdrop of bipolar pressures from great power competition. It released the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in response to former US president Donald Trump administration's Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework and other regional powers' own strategies, which threaten to overlook the multilateral grouping. The AOIP emphasised an inclusive regional vision, warning that 'the rise of material powers' requires trust-building and avoiding zero-sum logic.
Timor-Leste's membership would strengthen ASEAN's promotion of an inclusive regional architecture and help it remain the preeminent cross-regional institution for external powers to work with. ASEAN uses its convening power through forums such as the ASEAN-hosted East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus. These forums bring together outside powers, including Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States.
Yet, ASEAN – which cherishes its doctrine of non-interference in members' internal affairs – has failed to advance a diplomatic solution to Myanmar's spiralling crisis. At the summit in Phnom Penh, at which Myanmar's junta was not present, leaders acknowledged the lack of progress on the issue and called for a new plan with 'measurable indicators' and a 'specific timeline'. They also 'tasked' 'ASEAN [f]oreign [m]inisters to develop the implementation plan'.
Timor-Leste's President Jose Ramos Horta has been an advocate for the Myanmar people's struggle against the junta and is a supporter of Myanmar's deposed former democratic government leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Before his election in April, Ramos Horta criticised Dili's decision to abstain from a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Myanmar military as a 'vote of shame'. Dili may have banked on Cambodia and Myanmar's support for its membership bid in ASEAN in return for abstaining on the measure. Given Ramos Horta's interest in Myanmar, Dili may support further diplomatic efforts under Indonesia's chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023.
Timor-Leste's inclusion also strengthens the ASEAN Charter's mandate of 'adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms'. This pledge is at odds with ASEAN's current membership, which resembles more of a strongman club than a group of democracies.
Southeast Asia has demonstrated an authoritarian turn recently with several democracies showing trends and features of hybrid regimes. Political scientist Tom Pepinsky has argued that '[t]he real story of the state of democracy in Southeast Asia is... the strength of durable authoritarianism in the non-democracies'. Pepinsky points to the success of 'neopatrimonialism' in Cambodia and Malaysia, where political leaders ('patrons') have rewarded their supporters ('clients') with spoils such as business deals or political protection.
Amid this authoritarian trend in regional governance, Timor-Leste represents a bright spot for Southeast Asian democracy with valuable lessons to impart on other members. Its success could demonstrate the viability of a democratic path to regional autocrats.
It seems that the way is finally paved to Dili's accession, with Singapore having given up its resistance based on Timor-Leste's comparatively low development standards. Yet sceptics continue to insist that Timor-Leste's membership will exacerbate ASEAN's internal divisions, making consensus more difficult, and further exposing the bloc to great power interference. Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak has argued that allowing Timor-Leste to join ASEAN will 'make the organisation more vulnerable to be picked off and co-opted by the big powers'.
This argument does not hold weight. ASEAN is already struggling to deal with great power rivalry. Adding one more member will not weaken the organisation but can strengthen it. By adding Timor-Leste, ASEAN can demonstrate that it is living up to its calls for an open and inclusive regional order.
A regional organisation that includes all eleven Southeast Asian states will be a stronger counterweight to growing bipolar pressures and more capable of resisting the efforts of great powers to divide the region or enlist individual countries to their side.
[Hunter Marston is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University and an Adjunct Research Fellow at La Trobe Asia, La Trobe University.]