Accession of East Timor to ASEAN

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ASEAN (blue) and East Timor (red) Flag of East Timor

The accession of East Timor to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a process that started following the independence of the country in 2002 when its leaders stated that it had made a "strategic decision" to become a member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the future. The country officially applied for membership in 2011.

Closer ties with ASEAN are supported by all political parties in East Timor. East Timor would have by far the smallest GDP in the ASEAN, less than 15% of the smallest current ASEAN member state Laos. In 2022, the country was admitted "in principle" as the organization's 11th member, with full membership pending.

Accession requirements

East Timor's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Adaljíza Magno, visits the ASEAN Secretariat. Hosted by Kao Kim Hourn

The ASEAN Charter defines the following criteria for membership:

East Timor membership issues

To become a member of ASEAN, East Timor needs to fully meet the organization's conditions and obligations, which include the ability to meet the requirements for participation in the three main pillars of political-security (APSC), economic (AEC), and socio-cultural (ASCC). While there are no membership requirements pertaining to a country's level of development, some countries had historically opposed East Timor's accession due to its underdeveloped economy. Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Myanmar supported East Timor in its desire for full membership, concerns were expressed behind closed doors that ASEAN already had enough problems with Myanmar. Singapore in particular was sceptical as to whether East Timor would be able to cope with accession.

East Timor is one of the poorest countries in Asia, facing many challenges including maintaining security, economic development, efforts to combat corruption in the national budget, and being heavily dependent on oil exports, which account for up to 80‒90% of its revenue. Additionally, improving healthcare and education systems is a priority. The country's infrastructure is also relatively underdeveloped, and the literacy rate is approximately 69.9% as of 2018. According to the World Bank's data, in 2012, East Timor had a population of 1.2 million people and a GDP of US$1.29 billion, which is only 15% of the smallest economy within ASEAN, which is Laos with a GDP of US$9.2 billion. Thus fast tracking East Timor's accession to ASEAN was seen to hasty at the time.

By 2015, East Timor had fulfilled three major requirements: the country was located in Southeast Asia, was recognized by all ASEAN member states, and has opened embassies in all ASEAN member countries.

The 2023 roadmap to membership included a number of steps East Timor needs to fulfil, including the capacity to host large meetings and sufficient English-speaking government staff.

Chronology of Relations with ASEAN

Date Event
20 May 2002 East Timor secedes from Indonesia and is recognized as an ASEAN observer.
26 July 2005 After a case-by-case review and a delay in Pakistan's admission to the ARF due to India's disagreement, East Timor joins the ASEAN Regional Forum, during the Twelfth Meeting of the ARF in Vientiane, Laos.
13 January 2007 East Timor accedes to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.
4 March 2011 East Timor officially applies for membership in ASEAN.
6 July 2019 ASEAN fact-finding mission on East Timor is formed. This fact finding mission investigates the eligibility and readiness of East Timor to join the ASEAN Community, consisting of three pillars. Namely, the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
22 July 2019 East Timor sends delegations to the ASEAN Secretariat Technical Meeting. A delegation of 20, the largest ever delegation of East Timorese Government officials to visit the ASEAN Secretariat prior to East Timor's Joining, led and coordinated by the Directorate-General for ASEAN Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, the delegation is composed of Director-Generals and Focal Points from line-ministries working towards ASEAN accession across all the three pillars. various important issues, which include learning about the ASEAN institutional framework and organic structure, decision-making bodies and processes, legal instruments and agreements, and technical cooperation.
3 September 2019 APSC Screening of East Timor starts.
6 July 2022 ASCC Screening of East Timor starts.
19 July 2022 AEC Screening of East Timor starts. During the three-day AEC Fact-Finding Mission, delegates met with key East Timor ministries/government agencies involved in the country's accession to the ASEAN Economic Agreements, including the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals, the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Public Works, the Ministry of Transport and Communication, the Customs Authority, and the Secretariat of State for Professional Training and Labor (SoSPTE). There were also meetings with East Timor's Chambers of Commerce and Industry, as well as the business community.
11 November 2022 East Timor admitted "in principle"; the country gains observer status in all high-level ASEAN meetings.

Foreign relations with ASEAN member states

Other observer states


Early relations

In 2002, East Timor was recognized as an observer of ASEAN and joined the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005. After being admitted to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2005, the application to join ASEAN was submitted in Kuala Lumpur on 28 July 2006. In preparation for accession, the country acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in January 2007, pledging to renounce the use of force and binding East Timor to non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states. In August 2007, the ASEAN states declared their willingness in principle to admit East Timor.

In 2005, East Timor said it wanted to be a member by 2010. In December 2007 President José Ramos-Horta restated that joining was a top priority, and he hoped to join by 2012. In January 2009, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said that his country would support East Timor's membership of ASEAN by 2012.

In 2010, East Timor attended the ASEAN summits as a "special guest of the presidency".

Accession delays

East Timor officially applied for membership in ASEAN on 4 March 2011. As months passed, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão put the brakes on hopes over joining ASEAN in 2011, stating that the country still lacked the necessary "human resources." After elections in 2012, the new government reaffirmed their commitment to joining the association. While Indonesia, which East Timor gained their independence from in 2002, has pushed for them to be granted ASEAN membership, other countries, such as Singapore and Laos, have objected on the grounds that East Timor is not yet developed enough to join. However, after the ASEAN summit in April 2013, Secretary General of ASEAN Lê Lương Minh stated that all member states supported East Timor's admission to the association, although he also said that the country was not yet qualified for membership. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III pledged his country's support to East Timor's ASEAN membership in June 2013. The Philippines has previously supported East Timor's ASEAN membership through official documents in 2002 and 2010.

By September 2013, the ASEAN's Coordinating Council Working Group was still evaluating East Timor's membership application, and Minh said that there was no timeline for when the assessment would be completed. Singapore pledged that it would not block East Timor's membership in the association but did not explicitly support it, stating that plans for economic integration must not be derailed by the country's accession. In November 2013, U Aung Htoo, ASEAN Affairs Department deputy director, said that East Timor would not be ready to join in 2014 since they do not have an embassy in all 10 current ASEAN member states, a necessity for membership.

In 2015, East Timor said it is now ready to join the association at any time, telling via East Timor's ambassador to Malaysia that their country had at least fulfilled two major requirements for ASEAN membership. The Philippines re-echoed its support for East Timor's accession to ASEAN on the same year.

In 2017, the Philippines, a close ally of East Timor, became the ASEAN host for 2017. However, ASEAN bypassed East Timor's membership in 2017, mostly because of its lack of human resources which was pointed out by Singapore. Despite this, it was announced that East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri will continue East Timor's participation in ASEAN as an observer during the 2017 summit. The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia reiterated East Timor's membership application during the summit, but 6 member states led by Singapore did not support the move.

In 2018, East Timor's application for membership was still being studied by the association. Despite Singapore being historically opposed to East Timor's accession to the association due to economic reasons, the country began to openly state that they are welcoming the country's membership application when the Timorese Prime Minister visited the latter.

Fact-finding mission

In 2019, ASEAN formed a fact-finding mission to visit the country in September to determine its readiness in joining the association. In June 2019, several ASEAN ministers reiterated their support for East Timor's membership bid.

In 2021, East Timor voted to abstain in a United Nations resolution which aimed to condemn the military dictatorship in Myanmar which ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The vote was influenced by ASEAN chair Cambodia, who also voted to abstain alongside the ASEAN states of Brunei, Laos, and Thailand, while Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam supported the resolution. East Timorese officials later expressed their regret, with Ramos-Horta calling the vote a "vote of shame" and stated that the country may have isolated itself from the other members of the association.

Following his 2022 reelection, Ramos-Horta reiterated the country's desire to join ASEAN, aiming for a 2023 admission when Indonesia is set to chair the organization. He later criticized the lengthy process of joining the organization, stating that "It seems as if to reach ASEAN, you have to fulfill all the criteria to enter heaven. And then the next step is ASEAN."

Negotiation progress

Taur Matan Ruak welcomed to represent East Timor on its first high-level meeting in ASEAN. A privilege only bestowed to ASEAN's members

In November 2022, following the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, the organization issued statement agreeing "in principle" to East Timor's membership, granting East Timor observer status at high-level meetings and stating that a roadmap to full membership would be submitted in the 2023 summit.

In February 2023, the country made its debut at a foreign ministerial level meeting of ASEAN, appearing at the ASEAN Ministers’ Meeting held in Jakarta.

At the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo in May 2023 a roadmap to East Timor's accession was adopted. Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak expected to be admitted at the end of 2023.

However, after another change of government, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão declared in August 2023 that East Timor would not join ASEAN as a democratic state as long as military governments, such as in Myanmar, were accepted in the organization. At the following ASEAN summit in Jakarta, ASEAN encouraged East Timor to continue working to fulfil the requirements for accession.

Public opinion

In East Timor

A 2018 National Public Opinion Survey by the International Republican Institute, sponsored by USAID, recorded that 76% of East Timorese supported full membership in ASEAN, with 11% having never heard of it, 8% responding 'Don't know/Refused to answer,' and only 5% expressing opposition to joining. In the same poll, 77% of people expressed a very favorable outlook towards ASEAN (an increase of 5%, from 72% in 2016), 13% held a somewhat favorable outlook, 4% had a somewhat unfavorable outlook, 1% felt strongly unfavorable, while 5% responded with 'Don't know/Refused to answer.'


Leaders of ASEAN Countries, Cook Islands, and East Timor at the 2023 ASEAN Summit. Singaporean PM, Lee Hsien Loong, briefly glances at East Timorese PM, Xanana Gusmao.

The 5th edition of the 'State of Southeast Asia' survey, published on February 9, 2023, by the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, reports to a conclusion that 61.5% of ASEAN respondents overwhelmingly support East Timor's accession. To conduct this survey, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute surveyed a total of 1,308 people from ten Southeast Asian countries, including academics, researchers, representatives of the private and financial sectors, civil society representatives, non-governmental organizations, media professionals, government officials, and representatives of regional and international organizations. The survey was conducted over eight weeks, from November 14, 2022, to January 6, 2023. Participants answered questions on 54 topics related to regional geopolitics and the political, economic, and social situation in the region.

According to the poll, the strongest expression of support for East Timor's Accession came from Cambodia with 93.3%, and the Philippines with 69.7%. 67.8% from Indonesia supported their closest neighbour while nearly a quarter of Indonesia respondents (24.8%) were unsure over admitting East Timor as a new member. The strongest opposition is from Myanmar at 48.7%, followed by Brunei at 45.0%, whereas Laos is most unsure of a new member joining at 38.3%. Although 26.4% of Singapore respondents remain unsure, only 11.1% expressed outright opposition. The lack of ASEAN consensus over East Timor's application to join ASEAN has been frequently attributed to Singapore in the past.

Among respondents supportive of East Timor's admission, 48.7% believe that a new member will enhance ASEAN's unity and centrality, while 39.9% are confident that East Timor's membership will increase intra-regional trade and investment. Only 11.4% think that nothing will change in ASEAN. Vietnamese respondents are particularly optimistic, with 70.0% believing that East Timor's membership will enhance ASEAN unity and centrality, significantly higher than the ASEAN average of 48.7%.

Among those opposing East Timor's admission, 34.4% are concerned that ASEAN's economic integration will slow down due to East Timor's membership, 29.8% believe that nothing will change in ASEAN, and 28.8% think that ASEAN's consensus-based decision-making process will be complicated by East Timor's membership. Only 7.0% believe that this move will increase disunity among member states. In this category, 66.7% of Indonesian respondents foresee a slowdown in economic integration.

Of the participants who support East Timor's admission, 48.7% believe that a new member will strengthen ASEAN's unity and centrality, while 9.9% are confident that East Timor's accession will increase intra-regional trade and investment. Only 15.8% of respondents disagree with East Timor joining ASEAN, 22.7% are not sure, and 11.4% believe that nothing will change in ASEAN.

Impact of joining

Benefits to East Timor

Becoming an ASEAN member for East Timor brings clear benefits. Because after the struggle for independence against Indonesia and to become an internationally recognized nation, ASEAN membership provides an important opportunity for national reconciliation. East Timor has declared that it "sees ASEAN membership as an indispensable part of the country's efforts to consolidate peace". In addition, when East Timor joins ASEAN, it can access to a larger and more dynamic market of over 650 million people and a combined GDP of more than $3 trillion. In the short to medium term, membership will create opportunities for East Timor to access important sources of capital for national development through programs such as the ASEAN Integration Initiative to narrow the gap of development among ASEAN members.

An optimistic view upon East Timor's leadership can be summed up to three ideals. First East Timor can benefit from the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which aims to create a single market and production base, enhance trade and investment, and facilitate the movement of goods, services, capital and people. East Timor can also leverage the preferential trade agreements that ASEAN has with other major partners, such as China, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. Thus, East Timor can attract more foreign investment, stimulate its economy, diversify its sources of income, boost its human capital and employment, and reduce its poverty and dependence on oil revenues.

Another benefit of joining ASEAN is the participation in the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). The APSC, which aims to ensure regional peace, stability and security, can benefit East Timor from the ASEAN mechanisms for dialogue, consultation and cooperation on various security issues, such as territorial disputes, transnational crimes, terrorism, maritime security (piracy), human rights, human trafficking, and humanitarian assistance. Alleviating its geopolitical position, strengthen its national identity and regional belonging, and contribute to the promotion of a rules-based regional order. For the ASCC, which aims to create a caring and inclusive society that values human development, social welfare, cultural diversity and environmental sustainability, East Timor can benefit from the ASEAN initiatives and programs that address various socio-cultural issues, such as education, health, gender, youth, disaster management, climate change, and cultural heritage. East Timor can also benefit from the ASEAN opportunities for people-to-people exchange, such as scholarships, internships, volunteerism, and tourism.

According to Professor Damien Kingsbury at Deakin University (Australia), East Timor possesses great potential in tourism, rice, and coffee production, with energy being the most significant aspect. Joining ASEAN has the potential to further develop the agricultural sector in East Timor, particularly in coffee exports, which can contribute to economic growth. The use of the US dollar also makes it convenient for tourists to exchange currency, gradually boosting the tourism industry. East Timor's ASEAN membership offers numerous advantages, including trade opportunities, enhanced security, national stability, and cultural exchange with the ASEAN community.

East Timor also holds a strategic position highly valued by both the United States and China for increasing global influence. It has access to crucial sea routes leading to Singapore, various Middle Eastern oil fields, and major global trade hubs in East Asia and the North American West Coast through the Australian Continent, including passages like the Malacca, Lombok, and the Sunda Straights.

Effect upon ASEAN

East Timor's efforts to join ASEAN demonstrate its desire for cohesion and its desire to contribute and integrate with the regional community. By accepting East Timor, ASEAN will promote its role as a cooperation mechanism, as well as help East Timor's integration and development process take place more actively.

Membership will allow East Timor to have a stronger and more significant presence on the international stage by joining an organization of 10 member states aiming for "a more coordinated and tightly-knit ASEAN in global issues of common concern." Therefore, East Timor will benefit from and be ensured under the protection of ASEAN. On the other hand, there have been interesting debates regarding the benefits of ASEAN when admitting East Timor. Typically, people tend to think about East Timor's responsibilities and duties towards this regional organization. However, such perspectives overlook the potential contributions of East Timor in regional ASEAN integration projects. Not recognizing and supporting East Timor could lead to ASEAN showing its incapacity to address issues within its "backyard" as East Timor is geographically, historically, and culturally part of the Southeast Asian region. From a strategic and security perspective, it could be seen as unwise to leave East Timor outside the ASEAN family. It would be too risky, even threatening regional security and peace when East Timor's standards and development trajectory go against ASEAN.

Any proposal from countries outside the region to East Timor will certainly cause concern for ASEAN. Some government buildings in the capital Dili such as the Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were built/renovated and funded by China. Non-recognition of East Timor has implications for ASEAN's central role in the Asia-Pacific regional structure in the 21st century. While facing a rising China, India, as well as the United States' greater interest in the region, ASEAN cannot afford to lose its role in the region.

See also


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Further reading