Rosmalis Anuar, Kuala Lumpur – After more than a decade of seeking full membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Timor Leste was finally, in principle, given approval to join the regional bloc as its 11th member state by ASEAN leaders who gathered in Phnom Penh for the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits and Related Summits in November last year (2022).
Timor Leste was also granted observer status to allow the participation of the country in all ASEAN meetings including at the summit plenaries.
With Indonesia assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN this year, geopolitical observers do not rule out the possibility that ASEAN under Jakarta's leadership will grant full membership to the last Southeast Asian nation that was once known as Timor Timur was its former territory.
Gilang Kembara, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, said Indonesia will be playing a role in assisting the Timor Leste government to adjust to the bureaucratic requirements of ASEAN in the hopes of acceding to the association during its summit later in the year.
"Such assistance would come from Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but other ministries might also play a part in assisting segments of the Timor Leste government," he told Bernama via an email interview.
Gilang's view was also shared by Malaysian geostrategist Prof Dr. Azmi Hassan who concurred that Timor Leste might be able to gain full membership this year – since Indonesian President Joko Widodo is among the ASEAN leaders who have been open towards the country's membership in the regional bloc.
The senior fellow of the Nusantara Strategic Research Academy (NASR) said Singapore, which initially did not favour the entry of Timor Leste due to concerns that it might become a burden to ASEAN, has also changed its stand and in principle voiced its support for the country's membership in ASEAN.
"Before this, when Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar were admitted, the situation in those countries, too, was not good; hence it should not be an issue if Timor Leste, a small country with a low per capita income, joins the grouping," he said, adding that the country also has no other pressing issues like human rights violations.
A senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Dr. Oh Ei Sun, noted that Timor-Leste's ASEAN ascension really depends on whether the country could fulfill all the conditions laid out.
"Indonesia's chairmanship is but a rotating one and does not confer it any extra power," he added.
On the benefits of Timor Leste's membership, Gilang said Timor Leste will have a reliable multilateral partner to advance itself economically, socially, and politically by utilising ASEAN's network, mechanisms, treatises, and many others to open up various opportunities in the future.
"Prior to this, Timor Leste has never been a member of any regional multilateral bodies, which stymied its potential and limited its ability to develop itself.
"Most of Timor Leste's relations have been bilateral at this stage, which is very limited, given the current standing of Timor Leste internationally," he said.
Oh agreed that "Timor Leste would of course like to progressively avail itself of various ASEAN privileges, such as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)."
However, he said that at this point, it is unclear how ASEAN could benefit from Timor Leste's membership.
Sharing the same sentiment, Azmi said Timor Leste's full entry into ASEAN would benefit the country more than the regional bloc.
"The benefits (of full membership) favour Timor Leste but ASEAN will also benefit indirectly if Timor Leste is developed and prosperous," he said.
ASEAN was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and subsequently joined by Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos (1997), Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999).
Timor Leste was once a province of Indonesia from 1976 to 1999, and – following a United Nations referendum – became a sovereign state on 20th May 2002.
Timor-Leste had sought ASEAN membership from the very start for economic and security reasons, and also to improve its relationship with its Southeast Asian neighbours – notably Indonesia.