Written by Sapna Raheem.

Timor-Leste is the 21st century’s first independent nation. This young nation was an ex-territory of Indonesia, and before that, it was an ex-Portuguese colony. Timor-Leste or East Timor declared independence from Portugal on 28th November 1975 – within nine days of declaration of its independence it was annexed by Indonesia under Suharto’s regime as Indonesia’s 27th province.   The Indonesian invasion of the territory was accompanied by mass killings by the militia and the military and suppression of the Timorese identity. After the Indonesian invasion, the local population mobilised itself to draw their self-determination claims to the attention of the international community and to publicise the atrocities perpetrated by the Indonesian military.

Despite the country’s strained relationship with Indonesia in its initial years of independence, membership of ASEAN has always remained a priority in Timorese foreign policy.

In 1999 Indonesia relinquished its territorial claims over Timor-Leste after a majority vote for independence was cast by its citizens. Finally, in 2002, the country declared its independence and joined the United Nations as its 191st member state. Fifteen years after recognition of its statehood, Timor-Leste is still navigating its way; forming alliances and making its presence known internationally. This post explores the Timorese ambition of joining ASEAN and analyses why it is important for the country to join with the regional international organisation.  Further it will briefly explore the difficulties small states like Timor-Leste face in the event of acquiring membership to international organisations.

Definitional dilemmas on how small states are defined are widely documented within the international relations and political science literature.  The smallness of states is often defined on the basis of population, geographical size or gross domestic product. Many international organisations use population as an indicator for identifying small states. In the case of Timor-Leste, it falls into the category of small states under all these parameters. But for the last fifteen years Timor-Leste has been successful in slowly building its international presence and reputation. For example, it hosted the ASEAN Regional Forum Election Observer Mission and the ADB/OECD Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and Pacific in 2013.

Despite the country’s strained relationship with Indonesia in its initial years of independence, membership of ASEAN has always remained a priority of Timorese foreign policy.  Timor- Leste formalised its aspirations in 2011 and applied for accession to ASEAN. It also acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and established embassies in all the ASEAN member nations. Despite satisfying the basic requirements for accession, the country struggles to gain membership into the association. Yet it continues to insist on its commitment to membership.

Why Timor-Leste wants to join ASEAN?

Timor’s ambitions for joining ASEAN can be explained through many lenses. I argue that its smallness and the limitations that arise from its size leaves Timor-Leste to push its agenda for membership. During the years of its struggle for independence, its smallness and resource limitations were the main concerns of the international community in recognising its statehood.   It seeks membership to protect its boundaries from invasion from stronger powers. This is because small states have human and financial constraints. Therefore, maintaining cordial relationships with its neighbours is one of the ultimate priorities of Timor Leste’s foreign policy. The founding charter of ASEAN mandates that the members should promote regional peace and stability by respecting the sovereignty of its other members in the region. In the case of Timor-Leste which shares its land and maritime borders with Indonesia, this is extremely important.

In economic terms, Timor-Leste’s GDP is around 1.442 billion USD, significantly lower than other ASEAN members like Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines or Indonesia.  Around 90 percent of it comes from oil and gas revenues, and the nation’s only gas producing field is expected to dry up in 2020. Therefore, the country recognises the importance of diversifying its economy and opening up its borders for tourism, infrastructure and  the service sectors.

Limitations of small states in terms of its non-diversified economies, and reliance on imports are widely documented. A membership of ASEAN could mean access to free market and free movement in South East Asia.   Some view this as a favourable economic prospect for Timor-Leste, as it could push the Timorese industries to compete with other member industries. Even though it seems like a favourable prospect, the authorities might also want to think about how the local Timorese population would position themselves after the opening up of boundaries.

For a country with 60 percent of its population below 25 years of age, around 20 percent of the youth are unemployed (a significantly high rate for a country with a population below 1.5 million). The opening of boundaries could have negative repercussions on employment opportunities, as well as for local industries having to compete with the stronger economies of the association. This raises concerns over how accession to ASEAN could positively aid the Timorese population and the importance of fostering attitudes within the local communities to not feel marginalised as a result of the economic integration.

Reasons for delay in accession

Resource constraints form the main objection to Timor-Leste’s membership to ASEAN. Singapore, which is economically the strongest member of ASEAN, is also a small state. Its foreign policy recognises Singapore’s commitment to assist other small states. However, Singapore fears that Timor-Leste’s membership would  mean a financial strain on the state (even though its GDP has increased every year since its independence) as ASEAN commitments mandate assisting member nations economically and technically for their development.

Another issue that is often identified is the lack of infrastructure and resources within the country. This could be attributed to the troubled history of Timor-Leste. After the militia and the Indonesian security forces withdrew from the country in late September 1999, the country’s infrastructure was destroyed and the institutions of the governments and administration ceased to function.  With aid assistance from countries like Australia, Portugal, Japan and China  the country is slowly building up its physical and administrative infrastructure.  It has also revived its links with Portugal. Many of the local elites who were part of the state-building process were either educated or lived in exile within Portugal.  Such alignments of Timor-Leste to Lusophone nations have attracted criticism from ASEAN members in the past.

Scholars of international relations note the importance of small states’ alignment with the bigger nations (in international relations and not by geographical size) for their existence. In the case of Timor-Leste which is just 15 years old, the validation from stronger nations are extremely important for its sovereignty and international presence. Engagements with Australia or Portugal in terms of aid and technical assistance provide opportunities that are crucially important for Timor-Leste’s diplomacy. But as a result, the country finds itself in an impasse with its immediate neighbours.


Even though membership of ASEAN could open many doors to the country, its ambitions are curtailed until it overcomes its resource constraints. Considering Timor-Leste as a case study, we might need to rethink whether we want to impose the same standards as we impose on stronger and established nations while assessing the eligibility of countries to join international and regional organisations.

Sapna Raheem is pursuing her PhD in Law at King’s College London. Her research is on the role of international development agencies in promoting judicial reforms in transitional states with Timor-Leste as a case study. Her interest areas are rule of law, state building, socio-legal studies and comparative law. Image Credit: by UNDP Timor Leste/Flickr.

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