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East Timor Welcomes Admission ‘in Principle’ to ASEAN

Flags of participating countries fly outside the venue as Cambodia hosts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Phnom Penh, Nov. 10, 2022.
Flags of participating countries fly outside the venue as Cambodia hosts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Phnom Penh, Nov. 10, 2022.

East Timor welcomed a decision Saturday by Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders to admit the tiny country “in principle” as its 11th member, indicating the end is in sight for an 11-year quest to join the trade bloc.

Timorese Ambassador to Cambodia Kupa Lopes thanked Cambodia for its “unwavering support” in steering his country into the group, adding that Dili was happy to comply with pending fact-finding missions designed to enable East Timor to attain full membership next year.

“We are eager to join in ASEAN,” he told VOA on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Leaders Summit. “So, this is very meaningful for Timor-Leste, and this is important for ASEAN as well,” he said, using East Timor’s official name.

ASEAN said Friday its members had agreed “in-principle” to admit East Timor, while in the meantime granting it observer status, which would enable the country to participate in all ASEAN meetings and summit plenaries until full membership is achieved.

ASEAN said in a statement that full admittance would be achieved “after considering the outcomes of the Fact-Finding Missions to Timor-Leste conducted by the ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.”

The statement said that “an objective criteria-based roadmap for Timor-Leste's full membership including based on the milestones identified in the reports” of the fact-finding missions would be formalized by the ASEAN Coordinating Council.

Lopes said a final report by the coordinating council will be submitted at next year’s summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, for adoption alongside his country’s formal request for membership. East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in 2002.

“Timor-Leste is ready to cooperate with the ASEAN Council and also the Secretariat of ASEAN and to fulfill technicalities for the roadmap in order to be a full member at the next ASEAN summit,” he said.

East Timor was expected to join ASEAN this year with strong backing by Cambodia, which holds the rotating chair this year, but those hopes were dashed at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ summit in August when Dili failed to receive unanimous backing.

Previous disappointments with ASEAN were expressed by Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia in July when he said, “It seems like the road to heaven – to reach the perfection of heaven – is easier than to reach the gates of ASEAN.”

Diplomatic sources said two issues had persistently dogged Dili’s bid – whether East Timor can afford the costs associated with membership, and that it was seen as being too close with China.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, however, told the foreign ministers that East Timor’s application was well advanced, would be reconsidered by Indonesia in 2023, and “by next year we could welcome this country to the ASEAN family.”

Ambassador Lopes said membership would provide East Timor’s 1.37 million people access to the ASEAN Economic Community and would open its market to the 683 million people in ASEAN. This would enable Timorese to travel and work across Southeast Asia in industries such as tourism and manufacturing, while expanding its own economy.

“Timor Leste’s economy can be more resilient – and then we can diversify from oil and gas, into areas of agriculture and tourism,” Lopes said.

David Totten, managing director of Emerging Markets Consulting in Phnom Penh, said the benefits for the impoverished nation would be enormous once it was fully accepted, and the constant delays in admitting East Timor had gone on for too long.

“Timor-Leste applied for membership more than 10 years ago and the continual holdup doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense," he said. "ASEAN is an enormous market — for a country like Timor-Leste, it would undoubtedly provide a much-needed economic fillip for the local people.”

Cambodia was the last country to join ASEAN, in 1999.