11 Years of Waiting, This is Timor-Leste's Journey to Join ASEAN

11 Years of Waiting, This is Timor-Leste's Journey to Join ASEAN

24 years since Cambodia became the 10th member of ASEAN, the geopolitical and economic organization of the Southeast Asian region has finally accepted its 11th member, namely Timor Leste. This was announced officially on the ASEAN website, followed by a detailed follow-up process regarding what will be done to formalize and "welcome" Timor Leste as a new member.

Timor Leste did only gain independence from Indonesia in 2002, which at that time was still called East Timor. Since obtaining self-sovereignty, becoming an official part of ASEAN is one of the unstoppable desires of the Timor Leste government.

"We really want to join ASEAN," East Timor's Ambassador to Cambodia, Kupa Lopes, told VOA on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN leaders' summit. "So this means a lot for Timor Leste and this is important for ASEAN," he continued.

It was not easy for Timor Leste in the end to get unanimous support for joining this group. Timor Leste had failed in its application at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit in August.

Stepping back, Timor Leste's disappointment was also expressed by the President of Timor Leste, Jose Ramos-Horta at the Indonesian Foreign Policy Community in July. So the phrase that had caught the President's attention was uttered, "It seems that the road to heaven is easier than reaching the ASEAN gate."

At that time there were two diplomatic matters which were considered to be making it difficult for Timor Leste to become part of ASEAN. First, can Timor Leste afford membership-related fees? Second, Dili is seen as too close to China.

Timor Leste's submission to join in 2011 made Singapore a very worried country. Timor Leste is considered to be a small country with a relatively high level of poverty. The fear is that Timor Leste will become a burden and slow down efforts to realize the ASEAN Economic Community.

Ambassador Lopes considered that Timor Leste's economy was not "that bad". Good for Timor Leste, ASEAN countries also have the potential to take part for mutual benefit.

From Timor Leste's perspective, becoming a member of ASEAN means opening access for 1.37 Timorese people to the ASEAN Economic Community. Vice versa, Timor Leste will open its market to 683 million people in ASEAN.

In terms of GDP, Timor Leste's economic growth was relatively normal before the political stalemate occurred in 2017-2018. Evidenced by its growth of up to 5.3 percent in 2016.

This figure shows that Timor Leste's growth rate is comparable to several ASEAN countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analysis of ASEAN countries' GDP growth for 2016-2018 also shows that Timor Leste can "compete". Indonesia experienced growth of 5.1 percent, Malaysia 5.0 percent, the Philippines 6.6 percent, Vietnam 6.6 percent, and Thailand 3.4 percent.

“Timor Leste's economy can be more resilient. We can diversify from oil and gas to agriculture and tourism,” said Lopes, quoting VOA (12/11).

To note, the Southeast Asian block through the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community "wants to build a single market and production base to strengthen the implementation of existing economic initiatives, accelerate regional integration in priority sectors, facilitate the movement of business people, skilled and talented workforce. ”

Timor Leste's efforts to join this regional family have been seen since 2012 when this country was still very young. At that time Timor Leste had shown glimpses of its capacity for regional cooperation by hosting several international diplomatic events.

One of them is the ASEAN Regional Forum Election Observer Mission in 2012 and the ADB/OECD Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and The Pacific in 2013. Even so, Timor Leste's capabilities are still being considered. Because this follows the issue of the embassy.

ASEAN countries provide conditions that Timor Leste must have embassies in all member countries. It was only in 2014 that Timor Leste finally had only four new embassies left to fulfill this requirement. It is undeniable, this is an effort to respond quickly to Timor Leste to continue to "seduce" this Southeast Asian regional family.

Indonesia's role is also considered to have a crucial point in the acceptance of this new member of Timor Leste. Last July, President Ramos-Horta conveyed directly to the President of the Republic of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, that the country wanted to join ASEAN when Indonesia became Chair of ASEAN in 2023.

At that time it was known that Jokowi had not commented anything regarding Ramos-Horta's request, only nodded and returned to the focus of the main discussion in the form of development cooperation in infrastructure, banking, telecommunications, and the non-oil and gas sector.

It is considered natural that Jokowi in the end cannot make unilateral decisions. The unanimous decision of all members will determine and become the final fate of Timor Leste.



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