03 August 2019
East Timor has turned to China for help in developing its economy and infrastructure – two weak points that have in the past held it back from joining the region’s premier multilateral forum, ASEAN. The country has been hoping to join the bloc since gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, making an official application for membership in 2011, and is today the only Southeast Asian nation that is not a member.
Observers warn that in pivoting to China, East Timor may have given the bloc one more reason to exclude it. Previously, doubters in ASEAN – most vocally, Singapore – have suggested the country’s struggles with its economy and infrastructure would leave it at best unable to contribute, and, at worst, a drain on resources. Now they fear its would-be 11th member could act as a Trojan horse for Chinese influence.
All that leaves East Timor with a Catch-22-style riddle: to join ASEAN it needs to improve its economy, but, in improving its economy, it could jeopardise its chances of joining ASEAN.
Former ASEAN secretary general and Singapore ambassador Ong Keng Yong said East Timor would need the backing of all 10 member states to join the group, as any decision would require consensus.
“ASEAN membership demands a very heavy responsibility,” said Ong. “It will consume lots of resources and time. What this means is that Timor will have to find a balance between domestic priorities and commitments to ASEAN.”
RSIS / Online / Print
Last updated on 06/08/2019