Winning Case Comp Brief: Timor-Leste's accession to ASEAN
To: The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs
Subject: Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN
Prepared by: Michaela Gyasi-Agyei, First Secretary, Australian Embassy Philippines
Date: 25 September 2023
In November 2022, Timor-Leste was granted “in principle” membership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This observer status will allow Timor-Leste to participate in ASEAN meetings, with full membership to be granted upon the achievement of certain milestones.1 Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 and officially applied for ASEAN membership in 2011. However, the nation’s accession to ASEAN has been delayed for various reasons, including concerns regarding its economic status. Though the accession has largely received positive reception, measures should be taken to ensure that the potential benefits are fully realised, and any risks are appropriately mitigated.
Implications for ASEAN and Southeast Asia
With Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN, all countries within the geographic boundaries of Southeast Asia are now members of the association. This increases the opportunity for political and economic cooperation and will likely provide greater stability within the region. Timor-Leste also has observer status in the Pacific Islands Forum and is “situated geopolitically and culturally at the crossroads of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands region”.2 Timor-Leste’s connection with the Pacific could increase ASEAN’s influence in this region, which is particularly significant due to the Solomon Islands-China security pact and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In addition, Timor-Leste’s status as a Lusophone nation could foster multilateralism between ASEAN and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.
The accession will likely accelerate Timor-Leste economic growth, through the transfer of knowledge and support from other ASEAN members. Timor-Leste is currently the only Southeast Asian country considered “fully free”.3 Consequently, the strengthening of relationships between Timor-Leste and the other ASEAN members has the ability to enhance democracy within the region. However, Timor-Leste has had diplomatic ties with China since its independence. These ties have been solidified through a recent strategic partnership,4 which could increase China’s ability to influence the Timorese political landscape.
Impact on Australia-Timor-Leste Relations
Australia has a strong connection with ASEAN as the association’s first dialogue partner, and through the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Australia publicly supported Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN and now has the opportunity to work alongside Timor-Leste as the nation finds its place within the association. As the only other predominantly Catholic nation in ASEAN, The Philippines has supported Timor Leste’s accession since 2011. Australia’s relationship with the Philippines presents a greater opportunity for cross-collaboration with Timor-Leste.
However, historic actions have impacted relations between Australia and Timor-Leste. Australia has a strategic partnership with Indonesia and was the only country to recognise Indonesia’s annexation of Timor-Leste (then East Timor). Australia’s involvement in the International Force for East Timor has also been criticised. Though both Australia and Indonesia supported Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership, some members of the Timorese public may remain sceptical. Australia also has relationships with Singapore and Laos, ASEAN members which initially opposed Timor-Leste’s accession due to the country’s level of development. Timor-Leste’s bilateral ties with China present an additional challenge,
due to the complex political and economic relationship between China and Australia. It is important for Australia to demonstrate that it genuinely supports the growth and success of Timor-Leste, while balancing its diplomatic ties with other states.
Following the success of our inaugural Foreign Policy Analysis Competition in 2020, YDS brought the policy competition back for 2023. The competition put participants in the shoes of a diplomat based in an Australian Embassy overseas, testing their ability to research, analyse and convey the complexity of an interesting global event. The winner was decided by special guest judges.
1 ASEAN Leaders’ Statement on the Application of Timor-Leste for ASEAN membership
2 “Regionalism, Security & Cooperation in Oceania” Chapter 8, Jose Kai Lekke Sousa-Santos
3 “The State of Democracy in Southeast Asia Is Bad and Getting Worse”, Joshua Kurlantzick
4 “China and Timor Leste form strategic partnership, upgrading their bilateral ties”, Jenny Kai