Commentary / World

Why Timor-Leste deserves to join ASEAN

by Curtis S. Chin

Special To The Japan Times

Fifty years since its establishment, it is time for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to welcome another member into its midst — with Japan’s support.

The recent meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in the Philippines drew more attention than usual to its concluding communique. More so than in past versions, this year’s ASEAN concluding joint statement made clear the grouping of 10 nations’ hopes for a demilitarized South China Sea. In one paragraph, the communique also noted “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea.” While not explicitly named, China was very clearly the focus of attention.

Garnering much less attention was the single paragraph that “noted Timor-Leste’s application for ASEAN membership and looked forward to the continued discussion” about reports and capacity building regarding that small Southeast Asian island nation’s longstanding efforts to join the regional bloc.

That’s unfortunate. ASEAN should welcome the accession of Timor-Leste, just as Laos and Myanmar were welcomed in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

I had the privilege of serving as an election monitor for Timor-Leste’s recent parliamentary election as part of the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) election observation mission. I was struck by the passionate commitment of the Timorese people to the democratic process, and inspired by their optimism about their country’s future. I believe that the country is in a strong position to continue progressing in its own development and make a positive contribution to the development of Southeast Asia. Timor-Leste deserves ASEAN support for its efforts to further integrate and engage with the wider region.

After regaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, Timor-Leste declared its desire to join ASEAN and applied for membership in 2011. While its ultimate accession is likely, there is a chance that the delays that have arisen over the past six years may persist indefinitely. Such a development would not only deprive the Timorese of a chance for further development; ASEAN would forgo an opportunity to welcome a country that can serve as a valuable example of a successful democracy to fellow members.

Over the past 15 years, Timor-Leste has grown into a well-functioning democracy where citizens actively engage with their government. The country was ranked as the most democratic in Southeast Asia by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index, and 43rd in the world — an impressive feat given the country’s traumatic experience during the 24-year Indonesian occupation.

One of the important ways Timor-Leste has been able to deliver sustainable democratic reforms has been through its openness to regional and international support. To this end, organizations like IRI have worked with civil society, government bodies and political parties to help them represent Timorese citizens responsively and effectively. IRI has worked in the country since 2002, and its assistance has been an important contributor to the country’s democratic consolidation.

Likewise, when I served as the U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and traveled to Timor-Leste in years past, I saw the importance of regional and international economic assistance to this and other developing countries first-hand. The ADB has supported infrastructure expansion, macroeconomic capacity-building and community-based development in Timor-Leste, and is well-positioned to assist not just in improving the country’s roads, but also its water supply and sanitation systems. I grew to appreciate the complementary nature of different types of development assistance, and found that the aid provided by the ADB complements the assistance provided by groups like IRI, and vice-versa.

As ASEAN continues to grow in importance, it is vital that its members collectively pursue policies that advance the region’s development in a sustainable manner. At a time when democracy is backsliding in the region, Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN would provide the region with a valuable example of how citizen-centered democracy can deliver a more prosperous and stable future.

Additionally, Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN would be economically beneficial to the region. Despite its small size, Timor represents a relatively untapped market for Southeast Asian trade; likewise, the region represents a largely untapped market for Timorese goods. In short, this would be a win-win situation for the region, and an important example for how inclusive economic development can sustain growth that benefits all.

During the lead-up to the election, election administrators, political parties and other stakeholders worked collaboratively to ensure a credible electoral process. This commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions bodes extremely well for Timor-Leste’s potential as a cooperative and responsible member of ASEAN. My experience travelling through this small yet vibrant nation has driven home the benefits for all of proceeding with Timor-Leste’s accession.

Now is a time for coming together. We owe no less to the many people who across Asia’s newest nation proudly held up an indelibly-inked finger as a mark and proof of democracy in action.

Curtis S. Chin is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC., and served as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.