The impending launch of the ASEAN Economic Community is being marked this week at a summit in Kuala Lumpur. It is a time to showcase ASEAN’s commitment to a region made prosperous through economic cooperation and integration.
It should also be the time for ASEAN to consider opening the door to a new member. East Timor is Asia’s youngest country – a stable democracy positioned at the crossroads of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Acceptance as a member country would enhance its prospects for economic development, while further strengthening the organisation’s centrality and relevance.
East Timor has made remarkable progress since gaining independence in 2002. At that time, its infrastructure was in disrepair, social services absent, and government institutions at their inception. A process of state building ensued and, despite brief periods of instability, the country now has a well-functioning government and is using its modest petroleum wealth to foster long-term economic growth.
Gaining membership has been a priority for East Timor throughout its short history. Successive governments have made the case through diplomatic efforts such as signing onto the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia two years later. By next year east Timor will have embassies in the capitals of every ASEAN member country.
These are impressive achievements for a young country but not surprising to development partners that are helping rebuild its infrastructure and develop the skills needed for the economy to continue expanding.
Newly paved roads now connect Timorese with their Indonesian neighbours, and electricity reaches almost every corner of the country. Deregulation has transformed mobile telecommunications to such a degree that companies from two member countries – Vietnam and Indonesia – are now competing for a growing and increasingly connected customer base.
While many of east Timor’s nearly 1.2 million people remain poor, huge strides have been made to improve living conditions and increase life opportunities. Infant mortality has halved since independence, and the incidence of malaria has fallen by 95 per cent. Primary-school enrollment rose from 65 per cent in 2001 to 92 per cent in 2013, and the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women stands at 38 per cent, the highest in Asia.
The ASEAN Charter sets out four criteria for membership, three of which are clearly satisfied by east Timor: It is located in Southeast Asia, is recognised by the 10 ASEAN nations, and would confidently agree to be bound and abide by the organisation’s charter.
The fourth requirement, demonstrating an “ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of Membership”, is for ASEAN’s members to judge. While east Timor’s willingness to fulfil its obligations is not in question, concerns have been raised about its readiness to participate in the organisation’s economic, Political-Security, and Socio-Cultural Communities, given the hundreds of meetings it holds each year, including those with ASEAN+ partners.
East Timor’s track record on governance suggests it would be a worthy member. The country has held three open elections without incident, and participates actively in international organisations such as the G7+ group of post-conflict states and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. East Timor represents a model for managing natural-resources wealth, ranking near the top of the international Resources Governance Index, ahead of several ASEAN members.
ASEAN members appear open to East Timor’s application. The country’s ambassador to the Jakarta-based secretariat was accredited in 2011, the same year the ASEAN Coordinating Council established a working group that commissioned studies on what it would mean for east Timor to join. When the final study is completed, it should be possible to map out a path to full membership.
Membership is a win-win proposition. It would help east Timor to attract investment, develop trade links, and diversify its economy. It already has one of the most open trade policies in the region, but joining such a high-profile organisation would send a powerful signal to investors and help to accelerate integration with the rest of Southeast Asia.
ASEAN, too, would benefit from the young population and strategic location of East Timor. The inspirational story of east Timor and its impressive development would be a shining example for all member states. It would give added meaning to the grouping’s members as they journey towards its Vision 2025, which calls for a “politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible” ASEAN.
East Timor has emerged as an able and willing member of the community of nations. The time has come for this country to take the next step on its road to prosperity.
Shane Rosenthal is country director at ADB’s resident mission in East Timor.