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    Southeast Asia
     May 6, 2011


East Timor's push for an ASEAN-11
By Megawati Wijaya

SINGAPORE - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will weigh this week in Jakarta whether to bring East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, into the 10-member regional grouping. Dili's bid has received support from ASEAN's current chair and former ruler Indonesia, but other members have sounded warnings that East Timor's poverty and political instability could hamper the grouping's goal of forming an integrated community by 2015.

East Timor's foreign minister Zacaria Albano da Costa formally submitted the application to join in March and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has circulated a note requesting "urgent attention" from his foreign minister counterparts when they meet during the ASEAN Coordinating Council meeting on Friday. The council's recommendation will be submitted to ASEAN heads

 
of government who will decide by consensus whether to accept the application during this weekend's summit meeting.

East Timor, one of the world's youngest and smallest countries, formally gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 following years of bloody struggle and a decisive vote for self-rule in a United Nations-backed referendum. The government now depends mainly on oil and gas resources to finance the country's budget. One of the biggest foreign projects, the Bayu Undan operated by Conoco Phillips in the Timor Sea, funds a US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund held in the US.

Despite those energy derived revenues, East Timor is Asia's least developed country, ranking 158th out of 179 countries in the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index. Gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 was a mere $558 million, lagging far behind ASEAN's current smallest economy in Laos, which recorded a GDP of $5.9 billion that same year. Half of East Timor's citizens live below the poverty line and unemployment currently runs at about 20%.

Although debt-free, East Timor is highly dependent on foreign aid. Reports from non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and the media claim that in the decade spanning 1999 to 2009 East Timor received somewhere between $5.2 and $8.8 billion, representing one of the highest per capita rates for international aid receipts in the world.

East Timor's backward economy has raised strong doubts on whether its entry into ASEAN would be more of a liability than asset to the grouping's timetable for a trade and investment promoting integrated community by 2015.

Declared at the ASEAN summit in Cebu in January 2007, a plan for an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) envisions an integrated region where goods, services, capital and skilled labor would flow more freely than at present. The concept is built upon the wish to leverage the region's collective strength to compete for foreign investments, particularly against big countries like China and India.

An AEC blueprint, approved in 2007, laid out a strategic schedule for implementing measures including procedures to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers and achieving more all-encompassing goals such as creating a more competitive economic region.

Experts at a seminar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore last month cast doubts on whether East Timor, with its limited monetary and human resources and lower level of economic development, will be able to meet all of those requirements any time soon.

Termsak Chalermpalaunupap, director of the political-security directorate department at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, expressed concerns on whether East Timor, with its limited number of qualified civil servants, will be able to attend all the ASEAN meetings that number about 1,000 annually from the ministerial, official and expert levels.

Unlike other groupings such as the European Union that function through democratic voting, ASEAN makes decisions through consensus. As such, anytime a member state is absent it slows down decisions.

"ASEAN is now a legal entity, with a charter and legal agreements like the [ASEAN Free Trade Agreement]. Will East Timor be able to accept and carry out all these obligations?" asked K Kesavapany, ISEAS's director.

Others have expressed concerns that East Timor may seek exemption from the obligations, resulting in a less cohesive and credible ASEAN community. Given East Timor's unsteady politics, some have recommended that it would be better to give it an "associate membership" that can be converted to full membership once it has met all ASEAN requirements.

Resource constraints
During a March visit to Jakarta, East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta gave his assurances that East Timor was not asking for financial help from ASEAN. Foreign Minister da Costa also told Indonesian media that East Timor has in place a road map to grow together with ASEAN so that it "won't be a burden" to member countries. ASEAN membership, he said, would boost the country's image and allow it to learn from its neighbors.

"Some of the concerns raised are legitimate ... We emerged from a conflict, but we have proven that we have managed to recover quickly," he said.

Despite its resource constraints, East Timor has set up an ASEAN National Secretariat, participated in various ASEAN Regional Forum meetings, and invited ASEAN to send observers to monitor its 2012 general election. Roberto Soares, East Timor's ambassador to Singapore and Brunei, made his case for entry by saying his country is "the lost child of ASEAN seeking to rejoin its family".

Significantly, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government has publicly supported East Timor's bid. "[The president] has hinted support for East Timor to join ASEAN. It is time for East Timor to be part of ASEAN," Yudhoyono's aide Teuku Faizasyah said during the official visit of Horta in Jakarta.

In an interview with the media last month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that continuing to exclude East Timor from ASEAN would be "economically unnatural" and "politically destabilizing" for the region in the long term.

Other ASEAN members have not publicly stated their official positions, though insider government sources said that Singapore and Malaysia have objected on the grounds that East Timor is not ready economically to meet all of the EAC's requirements.

"The other ASEAN member governments would no doubt be reminded of a previous instance when membership was granted on grounds other than technical ones and ASEAN had to live with the consequences of that decision and continues to do so even today," said Kesavapany.

ASEAN last opened its doors to Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia between 1997-1999. Questions were then raised about whether it was wise to admit four countries that had far lower levels of economic development than the grouping's six original members, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. (There was also controversy over whether to admit military-run Myanmar until it undertook substantial political reforms.)

According to the ASEAN declaration of 1967, the only conditions for "participation" in the grouping is to be located in the Southeast Asian region and adherence to the grouping's stated aims, principles and purposes.

"There are no other conditions for membership, certainly none in terms of the behavior of states towards their citizens and other people in their territories, none in terms of political or social systems, and none in terms of economic policy other than those pertaining to regional economic integration and cooperation," wrote former ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino in his 2006 publication Southeast Asia in Search of an ASEAN Community.

"This is why, when people ask why ASEAN accepted Myanmar and three other newer members [Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia], the question may be posed in riposte: on what grounds should ASEAN have rejected them?"

Severino has argued that progress with ASEAN's economic integration plans has not been hampered by the admission of the four less-developed members so much as by the six original members' policy positions and implementation delays, including those involving the dismantling of non-tariff barriers, negotiations on trade in services and the implementation of agreements on goods in transit.

Instead, he has argued the ASEAN-4, as the newer members are sometimes referred to, has given investors "a wider choice of where to place their investments in the free trade area according to the availability and cost of the required labor, the accessibility and cost of other resources, the effectiveness and enforcement of the legal and policy regime, and the overall investment climate, and so on."

In that subtext is a compelling argument for East Timor to make up an ASEAN-5 and formally join the grouping this weekend.

Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com

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East Timor's slow ASEAN embrace
(May 4, '06)

 

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