By Tama Salim in Dili
Just 14 years into independence, Timor-Leste has secured membership of a number of international forums, declaring its intent to catch up with the rest of the developing world.
Now, through its shared history with Indonesia, the world’s second-youngest nation is eyeing full ASEAN membership, as it seeks to identify with a region poised to become “the powerhouse of the 21st century”, said Timor-Leste’s deputy foreign affairs and cooperation minister, Roberto Sarmento de Oliveira Soares.
“Timor-Leste […] has manifested its desire to be part of ASEAN since the very beginning of our inception in 2002. And that desire, the commitment of Timor Leste, has always been raised in numerous meetings, forums in the region and beyond, and at the bilateral level,” he said.
Timor-Leste officially submitted its application letter to be considered an ASEAN member in 2011, during Indonesia’s chairmanship.
“Our application was overwhelmingly welcomed and supported by Indonesia, and of course, through the Indonesian chairmanship, then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono successfully secured all the endorsements and acceptances from all ASEAN member countries to officially endorse Timor-Leste’s membership, by establishing two important mechanisms to assess [our] readiness.”
Soares said the mechanisms were the ASEAN Coordinating Council and the technical or working level, which were mandated to assess Timor-Leste’s readiness covering all three important pillars: the political and security, the economic and the sociocultural pillars.
“All three pillars [have undergone] assessment, […] so now we are basically waiting for the ASEAN side […] to make a final decision about our accession,” he said.
Foreign policy priority
With regard to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s commitment, Soares said Timor-Leste was very much grateful.
“Indeed, during his visit to Timor-Leste, [the President] continued to reiterate the strong commitment of Indonesia and he will do whatever he can in his capacity […] to push for our accession to ASEAN.”
“ASEAN very much lies on Timor-Leste’s foreign policy priority; our desire to be part of ASEAN is indeed to further […] safeguard our own regional identity, because we are one of the only countries in Southeast Asia that does not yet belong to any regional organisation.”
Soares credited ASEAN as a unique and dynamic regional organisation.
“At the time when ASEAN established itself, it was mainly focused on political peace and stability. But a few decades later, ASEAN expanded on its concentration by looking beyond political stability, into what is the most important [aspect] in our globalised world today: economic integration and competitiveness,” he said.
“Being part of ASEAN will further safeguard Timor-Leste’s own independence and sovereignty, and of course, peace and stability in our region.”
On the other hand, Soares said Timor-Leste could also be a bridge between ASEAN and the Pacific.
“At the same time, Timor-Leste can also contribute beyond Asia Pacific through [its] own linkages and partners,” he emphasised.
Soares pointed to the fact that Timor-Leste could connect ASEAN with the community of Portuguese-speaking countries, the CPLP, which are located in Africa, Europe and Latin America.