This week Christian Whiton, whose work I respect, wrote in WSJ.com on the reasons why Timor Leste should join ASEAN. Now I would agree with the political, economic and other reasons put forth in the article. Unfortunately, I don't see how this will become reality any time soon, perhaps not in this decade.
This was discussed in one of the earliest posts of this blog. Have things changed since 2011, when Indonesia was actively pushing for Timor Leste in its role as ASEAN Chair?
On the ground, Timor Leste has improved its governance and infrastructure, as Christian notes in his article. However, sources in the ASEAN Secretariat and in Dili have indicated to me that Timor Leste is still far behind in understanding and incorporating the aquis of commitments associated with full ASEAN membership. Much of this is related to the relative lack of skills and human resources in Timor Leste’s government; however, similar issues did not hold back Cambodia from joining ASEAN, issues which were resolved through the passage of time and the influx of resources.
Just as importantly, ASEAN itself is not ready for Timor Leste to join its ranks., for reasons big and small. In 2015, ASEAN is conducting a stocktaking of the ASEAN Community, which will include a review of the authority and functioning of the ASEAN institutions. Implementation both of the post-2015 ASEAN Community agenda and the institutional reform will take time. ASEAN needs to get this right with its existing members before it takes on a new member.
On the smaller reasons, Dili will need time to develop the physical infrastructure to host the two ASEAN summits that will come with becoming ASEAN Chair at some point; one of these ASEAN summits will also incorporate the East Asia Summit which the leaders of the United States, China and other countries will attend. Furthermore, if Timor Leste joined now, the rotational ASEAN Chair position would be filled by Timor Leste in 2020 (currently scheduled to be Vietnam’s term as ASEAN Chair, as the rotation is supposed to be Malaysia, Laos, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam beginning in 2015; Timor Leste would fit in after Thailand). This means that Timor Leste probably cannot join ASEAN until Vietnam’s term as ASEAN Chair in 2020, or more likely, Timor Leste will agree to a delayed term as ASEAN Chair upon joining. Although these considerations may appear to be minor, they are given weight by the ASEAN leadership.
Weaving all of these considerations leads to a worst-case scenario of Timor Leste joining ASEAN by 2023, when its former occupier Indonesia becomes ASEAN Chair once again. By that year, sufficient time will have passed for Dili to have addressed the large and small concerns regarding its membership application, which should allow Indonesia to make a full court press for Timor Leste once again and succeed where it could not in 2011.
The problem is that 2023 is 8 long years away and much could happen in the interim. Furthermore, ASEAN membership can, in and of itself, be used as a carrot and a stick to encourage Timor Leste to continue with its economic and political reforms. Better then, to give Timor Leste a fixed date of membership, say by 2020 (which was the original date for the ASEAN Community), but take efforts to ensure that Timor Leste can be a fully functioning member by then. That means letting Timor Leste participate as an observer to ASEAN meetings (something promised by then-ASEAN Chair Indonesia in 2011 but not really implemented) and increasing support for its accession efforts (both to ASEAN and the WTO; full accession to the WTO will greatly help Timor Leste deal with its AEC commitments). That also means making accession conditional on achieving set goals during the process, so that ASEAN does not lock itself into taking on an unprepared Timor Leste.
By doing this, ASEAN can avoid the mistakes of the European Union. The EU has arguably taken on new members who were unprepared and required years to catch up. The EU also started accession talks with Turkey which became interminable due to domestic European politics and ultimately alienated that country.
Timor Leste, by comparison, carries no such political risks for the ASEAN leaders but comes with regional risks which can be alleviated by the proper use of time and resources. The bigger risk would be to put off Timor Leste indefinitely and create a underperforming, or worse, failed state at the southeastern edge of southeast Asia.