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Would Cambodia gain from supporting Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership?

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A billboard welcoming Timor-Leste president Jose Ramos Horta to Cambodia on October 19. SPM

Would Cambodia gain from supporting Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership?

ASEAN is a regional intergovernmental organisation that was established in 1967 with the primary aim of promoting economic growth, political stability, and social progress in the Southeast Asian region.

Over the years, the organisation has expanded to include ten member states: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. In recent years, there have been calls to expand the membership of ASEAN to include other countries, such as Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste has been seeking membership in ASEAN since 2011, yet there have been some cautions among the ASEAN members, citing concerns over the island nation’s readiness to join the regional organisation. Singapore, for instance, reportedly had reservations about Timor-Leste’s candidacy for ASEAN membership. To illustrate this, a Straits Times article published on July 25, 2016, titled “Singapore wary of Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership bid”, reported that “Singapore is wary of Timor-Leste’s bid to join ASEAN due to concerns over its stability and readiness for membership.” However, these reports were based on anonymous sources and that no official statement from any ASEAN member state has openly opposed Timor-Leste’s membership.

In any case, Timor-Leste continues to work towards meeting the requirements for membership. Moreover, the country has received strong support from other ASEAN member states, most notably Cambodia, which has been vocal in endorsing Timor-Leste’s membership bid, particularly during its 2022 ASEAN chairmanship.

This opinion piece explores some of the benefits that Cambodia would gain from supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN.

Economic benefits

One of the primary benefits that Cambodia would gain from supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN is economic. ASEAN is one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world, with a combined GDP of more than $3 trillion. By joining ASEAN, Timor-Leste would have better access to this vast market, providing significant economic benefits.

In addition, Cambodia, as an existing member of ASEAN, would also benefit from increased trade and investment opportunities with Timor Leste. To illustrate, as a major rice producer and exporter in the region, Cambodia is recently negotiating with Timor-Leste to purchase Cambodian rice and invest in local rice mills and warehouses after backing Dili’s bid to join ASEAN. Moreover, Timor-Leste is a potential market for Cambodia’s milled rice, according to LunYeng, secretary-general of the Cambodia Rice Federation (CRF), as Timor-Leste is a small country in Southeast Asia that relies heavily on food imports to meet its domestic needs.

In addition, Timor Leste has significant oil and gas reserves, which could be a valuable energy source for Cambodia. According to the Oil and Gas Journal, as of January 1, 2021, Timor-Leste had an estimated 259 million barrels of proven oil reserves and 11.2 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. As a result, the two countries could develop joint ventures in the energy sector for mutual benefits. Furthermore, joint ventures in the energy sector could provide both countries with an essential source of revenue and contribute to economic development and job creation. Notably, this would tremendously strengthen Cambodia’s energy independence.

In addition, increased tourism and cultural exchange between Cambodia and Timor-Leste could have several benefits. First, increased tourism from Timor-Leste to Cambodia could economically benefit the Kingdom’s tourism industry. Cambodia is a popular tourist destination, and the country’s rich history and culture could attract Timorese visitors. With the development of tourism, there could be new job opportunities and the creation of new businesses to cater to Timorese visitors.

Political benefits

Another benefit that Cambodia would gain from supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN is political. ASEAN is a powerful political organisation with a strong voice in regional and international affairs. By supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN, Cambodia would enhance its political influence within the organisation. This would give Cambodia more leverage in negotiations and decision-making within ASEAN, benefiting the country’s national interests. In addition, supporting Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership could align with Cambodia’s broader foreign policy objectives of promoting regional integration and cooperation. As a regional organisation, ASEAN has been instrumental in promoting peace, stability, and economic development in Southeast Asia. By supporting the admission of new members to the organisation, such as Timor-Leste, Cambodia could help to strengthen the bloc’s unity and centrality and reinforce its role as a leading regional forum for dialogue and cooperation.

It could also contribute to Cambodia’s efforts to expand its diplomatic and economic relationships beyond its immediate neighbours. Timor-Leste’s membership in ASEAN would facilitate greater regional integration by expanding the bloc’s geographic coverage. This would provide more opportunities for Cambodia to strengthen its relationships with other ASEAN member states, as well as with Timor-Leste.

Furthermore, Cambodia would demonstrate its commitment to regional stability and security by supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN. Timor-Leste is a small, developing country that has faced significant political and social challenges in recent years. By bringing Timor-Leste into ASEAN, Cambodia and other member states would send this struggling nation a message of support and solidarity. This would help strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between ASEAN member states, which would benefit regional stability and security.

Social benefits

Lastly, Cambodia would gain social benefits from supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN. ASEAN is an economic or political organisation and a cultural and social organisation. By bringing Timor-Leste into ASEAN, Cambodia would help to promote cultural exchange and understanding between the two nations. This would help build stronger people-to-people connections, which would benefit both countries. Moreover, the social and cultural benefits would also create political benefits of labelling Cambodia as a peace-loving country that promotes social and cultural harmony among the bloc’s member states. In return, it would enhance Cambodia’s good image on the international stage, the so-called “soft power”.

In addition, by supporting Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN, Cambodia would promote inclusivity and diversity. ASEAN is a diverse organisation with member states vastly different in culture, religion, and political systems. By bringing Timor-Leste into ASEAN, Cambodia would demonstrate its commitment to these values, which would be a positive message for the region and the world.

Manghout Ki is a Master’s degree scholar in International Relations at Griffith University, Australia

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.


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