S.E.A. View

Open the Asean door to Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste's acceptance as an Asean member would enhance the country's prospects for economic development while further strengthening Asean. PHOTO: AFP

The impending launch of the Asean Economic Community was marked last month at a summit in Kuala Lumpur. It is a time to showcase Asean's commitment to a region made prosperous through economic cooperation and integration.

This should also be the time for Asean to consider opening the door to a new member. Timor-Leste is Asia's youngest country - a stable democracy positioned at the crossroads of South-east Asia and the Pacific. Acceptance as a member country would enhance its prospects for economic development while further strengthening the organisation's centrality and relevance.

Timor-Leste has made remarkable progress since gaining independence in 2002. At that time, its infrastructure was in disrepair, social services were absent and government institutions were at their inception. A process of state building ensued and, despite brief periods of instability, the country now has a well-functioning government and is using its modest petroleum wealth to foster long-term economic growth.

Gaining membership has been a priority for Timor-Leste throughout its short history. Successive governments have made the case through diplomatic efforts, such as signing on to the Asean Regional Forum in 2005 and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia two years later. By next year, Timor-Leste will have embassies in the capitals of every Asean member country.

These are impressive achievements for a young country, but they are not surprising to the development partners that are helping rebuild its infrastructure and develop the skills needed for its economy to continue expanding.

Newly paved roads now connect Timorese with their Indonesian neighbours, and electricity reaches almost every corner of the country. Deregulation has transformed mobile telecommunications to such a degree that companies from two member countries - Vietnam and Indonesia - are now competing for a growing and increasingly connected customer base.

While many of Timor-Leste's nearly 1.2 million people remain poor, huge strides have been made to improve living conditions and increase life opportunities. Infant mortality has halved since independence, and the incidence of malaria has fallen by 95 per cent. Primary school enrolment rose from 65 per cent in 2001 to 92 per cent in 2013, and the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women stands at 38 per cent, the highest in Asia.

The Asean Charter sets out four criteria for membership, three of which are clearly satisfied by Timor-Leste: It is located in South-east Asia, is recognised by the 10 Asean nations, and would confidently agree to be bound and to abide by the organisation's charter.

The fourth requirement, demonstrating an "ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of membership", is for Asean's members to judge.

While Timor-Leste's willingness to fulfil its obligations is not in question, concerns have been raised about its readiness to participate in the organisation's economic, political-security and socio-cultural communities, given the hundreds of meetings the grouping holds each year, including those with Asean Plus partners.

Timor-Leste's track record on governance suggests it would be a worthy member. The country has held three open elections without incident, and participates actively in international organisations such as the G7 Plus group of post- conflict states and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. Timor-Leste also represents a model for managing natural-resources wealth, ranking near the top of the international Resources Governance Index, ahead of several Asean members.

Asean members appear open to Timor-Leste's application.

The country's ambassador to the Jakarta-based Secretariat was accredited in 2011, the same year the Asean Coordinating Council established a working group that commissioned studies on what it would mean for Timor-Leste to join. When the final study is completed, it should be possible to map out a path to full membership.

Membership is a win-win proposition. It would help Timor-Leste to attract investment, develop trade links and diversify its economy. It already has one of the most open trade policies in the region, but joining such a high-profile organisation would send a powerful signal to investors and help to accelerate integration with the rest of South-east Asia.

Asean, too, would benefit from the young population and strategic location of Timor-Leste. The inspirational story of Timor-Leste and its impressive development would be a shining example for all member states. It would give added meaning to the grouping's members as they journey toward its Vision 2025, which calls for a "politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible" Asean.

Timor-Leste has emerged as an able and willing member of the community of nations. The time has come for this country to take the next step on its road to prosperity.

  • The writer is country director at the Asian Development Bank's resident mission in Timor-Leste.
  • S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian issues.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2015, with the headline Open the Asean door to Timor-Leste. Subscribe