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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with East Timor’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Adaljiza Magno during a meeting in East Timor in June. The tiny nation, which gets a lot of help from China and Australia, is set to become a member of Southeast Asia bloc Asean. Photo: Reuters

East Timor in Asean may entrench divisions, make ‘picking off, co-opting by big powers’ more likely

  • The tiny nation, which gets a lot of help from Australia and China, is set to become the 11th member of the Southeast Asian bloc
  • Analysts say it joining may make existing group tensions worse, amid China-US rivalry in region and the competition for ‘hearts and minds’
East Timor’s impending entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could yet rock the bloc’s boat and exacerbate strategic tensions faced by the regional body.
Existing divisions between the more and less developed economies in Asean may well become further entrenched, experts say.

On November 11, Asean agreed to allow East Timor to become the 11th member of the bloc, according to a statement released by summit host Cambodia.

It said the remaining formal steps to bring the tiny nation with a population of 1.3 million to full membership will be discussed at next year’s Asean summit.

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Tan See Seng, a research adviser at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that given China-US rivalry and the competition for Southeast Asian “hearts and minds”, welcoming East Timor into Asean will only “compound its own strategic difficulties”.

“China’s influence on East Timor is clearly on the rise,” he said, adding that having the tiny nation join the bloc made sense as this would “better socialise” it to the grouping’s preference for neutrality.

“However, given that Asean has not been able to fully persuade some of its own [existing] members on that very point, it’s debatable whether Asean it can with East Timor,” Tan said.

Australia remains East Timor’s largest foreign donor, but in recent years China has provided aid by constructing public buildings, including the country’s presidential palace, and offering technical help in the agricultural, health, and military sectors.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political-science professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said East Timor’s Asean entry would further dilute the organisation’s effectiveness, already undermined by divisions over Myanmar’s coup and civil war, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Chinese workers mix cement for a new power plant in East Timor in 2009. Photo: Reuters

“Including East Timor would change the complexion of Asean, it would make the organisation more vulnerable to be picked off and co-opted by the big powers,” said Pongsudhirak, adding that East Timor “should be given the closest associational agreement without full membership”.

Since the Myanmar military’s crackdown on its people after a coup in February 2021, Asean has been criticised for its poor and ineffective response in holding the junta accountable; the war in Ukraine has also drawn mixed responses from the bloc with some members refusing to condemn the Russian invasion.

Greg Raymond, a lecturer at The Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, said a key concern for Asean has been whether East Timor has the necessary capability to be a full member, given that it is still in the process of nation-building after obtaining its hard-won independence in 2002.


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It was a Portuguese colony for hundreds of years, before Indonesia claimed the country as its own for more than two decades.

“East Timor is desperately poor and needs to develop its human capital, including that of its bureaucracy and government apparatus,” Raymond said.

Asean’s previous expansion from five to 10 members in the late 1990s had already raised concerns it made the grouping “more unwieldy given the huge diversity of perspectives,” he said.

Vietnam joined Asean in 1995, with Laos and Myanmar following in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. Brunei had already joined in 1984.

East Timor was a Portuguese colony for centuries before it was claimed by Indonesia, eventually gaining its independence in 2002. Graphic: SCMP

“This has made achieving consensus more difficult,” Raymond said, adding: “In this decision to admit [East Timor], it seems that the goal of inclusivity has won over the goal of coherence.”

More than one-fifth of East Timor’s employed population had less than US$1.90 in purchasing power per day in 2021, according to the Asian Development Bank. In 2020, there were 36.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to Statista.

However, Raymond noted that country’s current leaders are “very sensitised to the geopolitical competition in the region” and the concerns of large neighbours like Australia and Indonesia.

“They will be careful to try to balance their relations to the largest extent possible” Raymond said, adding that it is unlikely that Dili will accept China’s influence and investment “on the scale of Laos and Cambodia”.

China is the largest source of development help and investment to those two nations; Cambodia attracted US$1.29 billion in fixed-asset investment from Beijing in the first half of this year alone while Chinese investment in Laos stood at US$1.24 billion in 2020.

Deepening the divide in a ‘two-track’ Asean?

Singapore’s Tan said that Asean is still living with the consequences of having less developed states join its ranks, which led to the creation of “a two-track or two-level Asean”.

One track consists of more developed economies such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, while the other lesser developed members include Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

“The entry of an unready East Timor into Asean will serve only to deepen that cleavage,” Tan said.

In 2007, former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew reportedly told top American officials that Asean should not have admitted the newer countries due to their lack of shared values with the bloc’s founding members.

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Values such as an “antipathy to communism” had been “muddied” by the new members, WikiLeaks quoted Lee as saying, while their economic and social problems “made it doubtful they would ever behave like the older Asean members”.

Chulalongkorn University’s Pongsudhirak said with Dili coming on board, Asean can only remain central and relevant if it moves into a two-tracked approach, relying on its five core founders: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

Whether other members should be included depended on the specific issues at hand, or what was known as an “à la carte approach”, said Pongsudhirak.

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Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow at the Wilson Center based in the United States, said that East Timor’s addition to the bloc would be a continuation of Asean’s collective approach of integrating new members, “whatever the challenges”.

“It is ultimately better to manage them with those countries inside Asean rather than remaining outside it,” Prashanth said, noting that an enlarged Asean will reinforce the grouping’s need to shore up unity among members and add more flexibility in how it conceives of consensus.

He added that Asean’s suggestion that East Timor’s road map for admission be forwarded for consideration during Indonesia’s chairmanship “paves the way for a potentially powerful symbolic moment” next year.

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“[It is] recognition of how far bilateral ties have come since Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of the country,” Prashanth said.

Between 1975 and 1999, after centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in East Timor, the Indonesian military invaded capital Dili under the pretext of anti-colonialism and anti-communism.

In 1999, East Timor held a landmark referendum in which 78.5 per cent of voters chose independence, but this led to a three-week campaign of violence by Indonesia-backed militia groups and security forces.

International peacekeeping forces led by Australia were sent to restor order, followed by the arrival of a UN-administered administration that oversaw parliamentary and presidential elections leading to the country’s independence in 2002.

Portugal’s colonial influence means that the population of East Timor is culturally very different from that of Indonesia, with most people being devout Catholics and speaking their own language, known as Tetum.