Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should maximise his role as the chair of ASEAN next year to accelerate the acceptance of Timor Leste as the 11th member of the regional grouping. Despite its small economic size and poverty issues, the state has geostrategic importance amid the global rivalry between China and the US – with Australia as its deputy sheriff.

ASEAN should embrace Timor Leste as soon as possible, before it’s too late. The young nation needs the ASEAN market for its non-oil and gas products. Timor Leste today is probably just peanuts compared to prosperous ASEAN members such as Singapore, but political and security considerations should be the priority of ASEAN, at least for a while.

During his inauguration speech on May 20, newly elected President Jose Ramos Horta expressed his hope that the country would become the newest ASEAN member next year.

The media, including China Daly, quoted the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate as saying that in his foreign policy, bilateral ties with giant neighbors Indonesia and Australia would top his priorities. He also pledged to strengthen and expand trade cooperation with China, including in new technologies, renewable energy and digitalisation.

Timor Leste officially applied for full membership of ASEAN in 2011 and it launched a big campaign in 2019, with its foreign minister lobbying all 10 member countries. ASEAN has yet to respond to the request.

Soon after its independence in 2002, Timor Leste obtained observer status in the group, and in 2005, it became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

Indonesia should not repeat the mistakes it committed in 1975 when it invaded and occupied East Timor with the full blessing of the US and Australia after Portugal had abandoned its tiny colony after communists assumed power in Lisbon. At that time, the Cold War, which divided the world into the East and the West blocs, remained in effect. Now, after 47 years, the bipolar rivalry looks set to repeat itself, this time around the US and China.

The Cold War quickly faded in the early 1990s, but the winds of change did not blow into Indonesia, as it maintained its occupation of East Timor by the use of force. Only after the fall of Soeharto, did his successor president BJ Habibie approve East Timor’s demand for a referendum. The majority of the East Timorese voted for independence in the 1999 plebiscite.

After three years under UN auspices, East Timor became an independent nation on May 20, 2002, under the name Timor Leste.

A wave of violence followed the referendum, which an ad hoc human rights court later found was perpetrated by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and its militia groups. The horrifying atrocities have remained mostly unaddressed, as leaders of Indonesia and Timor Leste have opted for reconciliation for the sake of neighborly relations.

The tensions between the US and China are steadily increasing. Australia is expanding its “patrol zone” to the Indo-Pacific. China, too, is rapidly increasing its presence and influence in the Pacific Islands, as evident in its security pact with the Solomon Islands.

China’s presence in Timor Leste is also quite prominent. China was among the first countries to recognise Timor Leste’s independence and established its embassy in Dili in 2002. China built the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense buildings.

Australia is also known to have a special interest in Timor Leste, considering the major role it played in ushering East Timor into independence.

The rising influence of China can be irritating for Canberra, which tends to act as a big brother for its smaller Pacific nations.

Timor Leste is too strategic to be ignored by Australia or the US. Timor Leste is still struggling to eradicate poverty. The World Bank categorised it as a low-income economy, with a GDP per capita of $1,442 in 2020. Some 53 per cent of the population of 1.34 million lives on less than $1.25 a day.

The country’s revenue is heavily dependent on oil and gas. Although most citizens are farmers, the contribution to the economy is insignificant.

Timor Leste is one of the smallest nations in Asia. The tiny country shares the Nusa Tenggara Islands with Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province.

The small economic size is one of the reasons for Singapore’s refusal to accept Timor Leste as part of ASEAN. Singapore feared Timor Leste would inflict a heavy burden on the region and slow its bid to realise the ASEAN Economic Community, which seeks to follow the path of European economic integration.

ASEAN’s reluctance to accept Timor Leste contradicts its swift decision to welcome Laos and Myanmar on board in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. ASEAN took affirmative action by allowing the three countries enough time to catch up to the development of the other members.

ASEAN should not keep Timor Leste waiting for too long. The country needs the regional grouping to integrate itself into the lucrative market. There are mutual benefits ASEAN and Timor Leste can claim, although they may initially look unconvincing.

So far China is Timor Leste’s most important trading partner and the largest source of development aid. The US and Australia will counter China’s domination and the competition could become a defense and security matter for Indonesia and the region, as it did in 1975.

Indonesia still counts on the current political elites of Timor Leste, including Ramos Horta and former president Xanana Gusmao, because the two have known Indonesia well since they led the country’s resistance movement against Jakarta.

Indonesia should not miss the opportunity to integrate Timor Leste into ASEAN, although it has to take into account the reservations of other members, including Singapore. But in the end, it is in the strategic interests of ASEAN to bring Timor Leste into the fold.

Kornelius Purba is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.