Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Timor Leste and ASEAN: Who Is Not Ready for Whom?

At this month’s ASEAN Summit, ASEAN chair Indonesia pushed for admitting Timor Leste into the regional grouping.  According to Timor Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, the Philippines and Myanmar/Burma also support the tiny country’s bid.  Singapore reportedly blocked the move, claiming that Timor Leste is not ready to join ASEAN.  Perhaps this is correct, but ASEAN is also not ready to have Timor Leste enter the association.

Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter sets forth four criteria for admission, including location in Southeast Asia, recognition by other ASEAN members, agreement to be bound and abide by the Charter, and ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of membership.  A consensus of the ASEAN members is required to admit a new member; hence Singapore’s objection could postpone a Timor Leste application indefinitely.

Reportedly, Singapore objected because of its concerns that adding Timor Leste would complicate plans to complete the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015.  As a newly independent country heavily dependent on foreign aid, the ability of Timor Leste to comply with the requirements of AEC is questionable.  For example, Timor Leste is not a member of the WTO, yet many AEC agreements are based on WTO principles and agreements.  Without better human and legal infrastructure in Timor Leste, it will be difficult for the country to implement AEC obligations.

However, the same could be said about most of the existing ASEAN members.  Implementation of the AEC is still a work in progress, and some ASEAN government ministries frequently work at cross-purposes, frustrating the ASEAN institutions and ministries more committed to the AEC.    In short, if Timor Leste is not ready to join ASEAN, it could also be said that ASEAN is not ready to have Timor Leste join.  Singapore’s objection may appear coldly rational, but rational it is.

Nevertheless, it is important to have Timor Leste eventually join ASEAN.  Geographically and culturally, the country is in Southeast Asia, and it has a vast potential in natural resources such as natural gas.   Its strategic position between Indonesia and Australia cannot be overlooked.  Although some question its political stability, citing the attempted coup in 2008, Thailand had a successful coup in 2006 (and later return to democracy) and no one questions its suitability to remain in ASEAN.  In any event, ASEAN membership would promote political stability in Timor Leste.  Thus, Indonesia was justified in supporting Timor Leste’s bid, and even more so, given the moral obligation stemming from its role as the occupying power in the country.

So if Singapore is correct that the time is not right for Timor Leste to join, and Indonesia and others are correct that ASEAN needs Timor Leste and vice versa, what can be done? 

First, ASEAN needs to complete the implementation of the AEC by 2015.  Not only will this require major progress over the next 3-4 years, but it will also require ASEAN to establish legally binding and comprehensive commitments that can be easily adopted by Timor Leste when it does join.  In other words, ASEAN needs to develop and complete its own version of the EU’s “acquis communautaire,” or body of law. Otherwise, Timor Leste (or the existing ASEAN members for that matter) will not be able to administer the AEC properly.

Second, ASEAN needs to consider the potential institutional effects of having Timor Leste in the grouping and whether corrective measures should be taken. For example, each ASEAN member makes an equal contribution to the budget of the ASEAN Secretariat, resulting in a very small overall operating budget.  Pegging the contribution to the ability of Timor Leste to pay will further hamper the ASEAN Secretariat’s ability to function.  Thus, the accession of Timor Leste should be an occasion to revisit the funding formula for the ASEAN Secretariat and other ASEAN institutions.

Third, Timor Leste needs to complete the basic preparation to join the world economy and by extension, the AEC. It needs to join the WTO. It needs the continued support from the global community  to develop the “software” needed to interact with the rest of ASEAN. 

These steps, as well as a longer period of accession beyond 2015, are necessary because ASEAN needs more time to settle down its own economic integration before taking on a new member.  Furthermore, the experience in regional groupings like the EU and ASEAN itself demonstrate that the greatest incentive for new applicants to reform and conform is membership itself. Once the applicant joins, the moment is lost.  For example, after Cyprus joined the EU, settlement of the island’s political partition became indefinitely stalled.   Would ASEAN have greater impact on Myanmar/Burma if that country were outside of ASEAN?

All of the above will be frustrating to Timor Leste’s leaders and worldwide supporters, who wish to follow up on the goodwill of Indonesia during its term as ASEAN chair and join ASEAN this year.  However, the factors in favor of admitting Timor Leste into ASEAN will only become stronger over time. Furthermore, ASEAN itself is trying to evolve into an economic community, not just a political grouping.  Thus, both Timor Leste and ASEAN will benefit from having a longer time horizon for ASEAN membership.