Timor-Leste’s Foreign Policy and ASEAN

In: The Paradox of ASEAN Centrality: Timor-Leste Betwixt and Between
Michael Leach
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Sally Percival-Wood
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Since the restoration of Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, accession to ASEAN has been the central preoccupation of Timor-Leste’s foreign policy. Despite seemingly perpetual delays in accession, and the entrenched opposition of some ASEAN members, this position unites Timor-Leste’s political parties, and rarely a note of dissent is heard. This fact alone makes it one of the fundaments of foreign policy. Others include a general policy of “friends to all”, and, some would argue, a policy of balancing relationships between their two powerful neighbors to prevent the dominance of either one; and offsetting those bilateral relations with historical relationships with Portugal, and other countries like China (Leach & Percival-Wood, 2014).

Indonesia remains the great sponsor of the ambition of ASEAN, and for this reason alone it is unlikely to be questioned by political elites in Timor- Leste; as it forms part of guarantee of good relations with their former occupier. Civil society is another matter altogether, however, and many critical perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of accession have been noted by Timorese NGO s, such as Lao Hamutuk (2013), who have expressed concerns that ASEAN membership would impose costly obligations and increase Timor-Leste’s already substantial import dependence (REF) further flooding its markets with cheap goods from ASEAN countries. Others have noted that the expectation of benefits are too high and will likely be restricted to elites (Kammen, 2013). Notably too, other members of ASEAN seem rather less enthusiastic about Timor-Leste’s accession; with Singapore foremost among them. Confident predictions of accessions by certain dates have come and gone many times.

In engaging with these issues and debates, this book represents a timely contribution to the literature, offering a wealth of insights into the many questions raised by Timor-Leste’s relationship with ASEAN. Its deep engagement with these issues is welcomed. The centrality of ASEAN accession is undoubtable: the paradox lies partly in the fact that this orientation to ASEAN was not always so, nor perhaps as inevitable as it now appears.

1 Projections of a Future Foreign Policy

During the Indonesian occupation, East Timorese nationalists strategically prioritized relations with Melanesia and the Pacific over ties with Southeast Asia, and thus projected a regional alignment with the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), rather than ASEAN (Leach 2017, pp. 114–115). At the same time, the East Timorese resistance movement openly projected a future alignment with Portuguese language nations, under the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa – CPLP). Throughout the Indonesian occupation, these emphases on the close cultural ties with Melanesia, and historical associations with the Lusophone world were strategic in nature: highlighting the ways Timor-Leste represented a distinct political community from Indonesia at large.

At this time, Timor-Leste’s Melanesian affinities were politically expressed through solidarity with West Papua and an oft-repeated desire to join the South Pacific Forum rather than ASEAN upon independence. This position was in part attributable to the active support of Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Walter Lini, the only member of the non-aligned group of nations to support its struggle for independence – in stark contrast to ASEAN states’ active distancing of East Timor. Refused entry to ASEAN’s most influential countries, Ramos-Horta argued in 1999 that East Timor had “more in common culturally and historically with the South Pacific than with Indonesia and the rest of South-East Asia” although it was clearly geographically part of the latter region (Leach and Percival-Wood, 2014). The CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance) conference in Peniche, Portugal, in 1998 spoke of “active neutrality” and establishing relations with ASEAN, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the Pacific Islands Forum, though the PIF was still at this point considered the “priority”. Nevertheless, while Timor-Leste became a Special Observer of the PIF in 2002, it has not gained full membership.

2 ASEAN and the Indonesian Occupation

From Australia’s perspective, the issue of Portuguese Timor began in April 1974 – the same month and year that Australia formally became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner – when the “Carnation Revolution” brought about an end to Portugal’s 50 years of dictatorship under Salazar’s Novo Estado regime (Leach & Percival-Wood, 2014, p. 68).

Just as Australia covertly resiled from its lip-service to East Timorese self- determination, there was little support for East Timor among ASEAN nations. In 1976, Singapore had abstained in a UN Security Council motion on East Timor, only to immediately encounter threats of sanctions from Indonesia including the closure of airspace. No further diplomatic support or even neutrality was forthcoming from ASEAN nations thereafter, until 1999. Most importantly, ASEAN’s exclusive reliance on a consensus model and central principle of non-interference made it ill-suited as a mechanism to resolve any regional conflicts involving member states.

In 1994 the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was created with the primary objectives: “1) to foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern; and 2) to make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region”. East Timor was completely ignored in both regards. Indeed, in the same year, the Philippines tried to ban a conference on East Timor in Manila and blacklisted José Ramos-Horta, who was also banned from entering Bangkok in 1995. In 1996 he was again banned from entry to Kuala Lumpur to attend another conference on East Timor. In 1999, Singapore’s prime minister Goh Chok Tong said that East Timor was not ASEAN’s problem. Rather it was an international issue to be dealt with by the United Nations (Leach & Percival-Wood, 2014, p. 72).

As early as 1986, East Timorese students in Jakarta used the ASEAN-EEC (now ASEAN-EU) Ministerial Meeting as an opportunity to highlight the occupation by seeking asylum in the Dutch embassy: an event which would become a regular feature of clandestine student activities through the 1990s. Events with greater impact would follow. In 1992, with international condemnation of the Santa Cruz massacre at its peak, a substantial aid agreement between the European Community and ASEAN worth US$5 billion was vetoed by Portugal at the eleventh hour, citing the “unacceptable violation of human rights in East Timor”. Pressure mounted for UN-sponsored talks on East Timor, involving Portugal, Indonesia and East Timorese representatives.

As Geoffrey Gunn (2006, p. 92) notes, changes were also occurring within the ASEAN landscape itself. The increased growth of civil society organizations by the 1990s offered new challenges to the state-centric and authoritarian mode of “ASEAN-style political management” and the East Timorese student movement formed productive relations with the rising Indonesian democracy movement throughout the 1990s.

Nonetheless, these changes did little to affect ASEAN’s operations, and the regional body would play no meaningful role in the resolution of the East Timor crisis prior to the referendum in 1999. ASEAN’s sacrosanct pact on non-interference prohibited any external intervention on human rights grounds, a principle that filtered through to the ARF, which sat on its hands on the issue of East Timor.

At this point, given the regional tensions surrounding Australia’s leadership of INTERFET and general concerns over Western intervention in Southeast Asian problems, the participation of ASEAN states was considered essential. Among the 17 nations that joined INTERFET, Thailand made the largest ASEAN member contribution as deputy leader of the mission deploying 1,580 personnel – the Philippines contributed 600, and Singapore sent a medical company (Leach & Percival-Wood, 2014, p. 73).

3 The Restoration of Independence

Following the restoration of independence in 2002, ASEAN membership quickly moved to the center of Timor-Leste’s foreign policy priorities. The political and geostrategic benefits were recognized immediately after independence, signaling a pragmatic shift to a pro-ASEAN stance and Timor-Leste was recognized as an observer nation to ASEAN in 2002. Above all, good relations with its former occupier Indonesia became a central strategic priority. ASEAN accession remains the priority goal of East Timorese foreign policy, a position that is at its core more easily explained by geostrategic than economic considerations.

Though now secondary to the priority goal of ASEAN accession, Timor- Leste’s participation in Pacific regional fora and engagement with the emerging states of Melanesia facing shared development challenges and continued to grow. Such engagement included participation in new organizations that implicitly challenge Australian and New Zealand dominance of the region, such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and more overtly, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) sponsored by Fijian prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama. These involvements could yet see Timor-Leste grow into its once-promised role as “bridge state” between the Melanesian and Southeast Asian worlds, contributing actively to inter-regional engagement while diversifying Timor-Leste’s opportunities for regional partnerships.

After Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão attended the inaugural PIDF meeting in Nadi, the Timor-Leste government donated US$250,000 in a show of support. The approach of the PIDF accorded strongly with that of the G-7+ – “a group of fragile states in transition toward development and still affected by conflict” – as it promoted country-led development strategies appropriate to national contexts. In March 2014, the G7+ announced the “Dili Consensus” emphasizing the need for new forms of south-south cooperation. In the same year, Timor-Leste’s commitment to the CPLP was affirmed when it assumed the two-year presidency (2014–16) of the group (comprising eight members and three observer states). The CPLP provides access to diplomatic networks and development cooperation with historically linked countries in Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

4 Turning toward ASEAN

Concerted efforts have been made since July 2005, when Timor-Leste became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. In 2007 Timor-Leste signed ASEAN’s Treaty on Amity and Co-operation and officially applied for ASEAN membership in March 2011. The then-president José Ramos-Horta was particularly positive about Timor-Leste’s prospects in becoming ASEAN’s eleventh member:

Timor-Leste is ready to join ASEAN this or next year. We concede we have many weaknesses and shortcomings. But ASEAN could admit Timor-Leste now and give us a five-to-ten-year transition period, during which we would expand efforts to catch up to the more advanced ASEAN members. This would make sense, in line with past ASEAN practice in relation to other members and in line with the European Union practice in admitting new members and supporting them until they are able to live up fully to their obligations.

Ramos-Horta cited public support from ASEAN members Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Myanmar – Singapore was notably absent. The backing of Indonesia is critical to the realization of Timor-Leste’s ASEAN aspirations and it has become the main advocate; while other ASEAN members suspect that Timor-Leste’s membership would represent a double vote for Indonesia. Meeting the accession requirements became a whole-of-government focus for Timor-Leste, and to that end it created a dedicated secretary of state for ASEAN affairs in the early 2010s. By the end of 2021, however, the regional body was yet to approve Timor-Leste’s accession, citing lack of readiness in several key areas. Singapore in particular was believed to regard Timor-Leste as likely to be a substantial economic burden to the regional organization.

5 Timor-Leste’s Foreign Policy

In terms of bilateral relations, Timor-Leste’s historically dominant relationships with Australia and Indonesia, Indonesia continue to loom large. Since independence, Timor-Leste has strived to balance relations with both to prevent any overwhelming influence of one and to maximize the strategic leverage that can be gained from each. Within this pattern the importance of not antagonizing the former occupier Indonesia is recognized, and the enormous significance of Australian bilateral assistance is acknowledged. For its part, Portugal is major donor and continues to provide bilateral assistance in a key area, including police and teacher training. This relationship with Portugal – and with other Lusophone countries through the CPLP – is a critical one which helps offset Timor-Leste’s reliance on its two giant neighbors.

As well as being the strongest advocate for ASEAN membership, Indonesia is Timor-Leste’s largest trading partner. This is, however, overwhelmingly skewed in favor of Indonesian exports of essential and consumer goods, which account for 39 percent of Timor-Leste’s imports.1 Despite minor tensions over small unresolved stretches of their land border, Indonesia’s role as the key supporter and sponsor of Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN signals the health of this critical relationship.

Relations between Australia and Timor-Leste appear to be back on track following the March 2018 treaty which created permanent maritime boundaries between the two states for the first time. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Dili in late August 2019 saw notes exchanged marking the formal ratification by both parliaments. This signified the end of a key stumbling block that saw ministerial visits cease for nearly five years.

Although Australia is supportive of Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN, this has been interpreted as largely a means for limiting China’s potential influence: membership of the regional bloc will tend to moderate China’s sway in Timor-Leste, and further encourage ASEAN to take responsibility if the security situation were ever to deteriorate in Timor-Leste, as it did during the 2006 political-military crisis. The risks from Canberra’s perspective may include Timor-Leste coming under greater influence of Jakarta in regional decision making – an assessment which may also have been a factor for other ASEAN states in Timor-Leste’s relatively slow accession process. Any such fears are likely to be exaggerated, given Dili’s clear pattern of using a range of relationships to minimize the dominance of any single player (Leach & Percival-Wood, 2014, p. 82).

China plays a far smaller aid role, though its exercise of “soft power” through the donation of major government buildings makes it a notable and growing presence. Fears of China’s involvement exaggerate its current aid and investment footprint, which remains modest compared to aid from Australia, the European Union, Japan and the former colonial power Portugal. But as with the Pacific nations, there is no doubt that China now provides leverage to smaller states like Timor-Leste.

6 Conclusion: ASEAN Centrality in Context

While its enthusiastic commitment to joining ASEAN has become the sine qua non of East Timorese foreign policy, it is also true that Dili continues to balance this engagement with important multilateral commitments to the CPLP, to the Pacific region and the G7+ group of fragile states; and an even more critical suite of bilateral relations with Indonesia, Australia, Portugal, China, the United States and others. Indeed, Timor-Leste’s independent foreign policy has now accumulated close to twenty years without achieving the ambition of ASEAN accession. Nonetheless, observers of Timor-Leste’s politics will notice no dimming in the ardour for ASEAN accession among Dili’s political elites. In November 2022, as this book was being finalised, ASEAN finally agreed “in-principle” to admit Timor-Leste as a member, though subject to meeting certain “milestones” which would be assessed by member states (ASEAN 2022). The question, then, is when the regional organisation will permit Timor-Leste’s full accession, what are the factors likely to play into that decision, and what are the internal factors within Timor-Leste that will contribute to government readiness, or to the ongoing debates within civil society over the merits of the policy. In bringing all these issues into new light, and extending the examination of these ongoing debates, this book warrants our close attention.


Michael Leach wishes to acknowledge his now deceased and much missed former colleague, Dr Sally Percival-Wood, with whom he co-authored the 2014 book chapter ‘Timor-Leste: From INTERFET to ASEAN’. That work, and Dr Percival-Wood’s exemplary historical scholarship, is reflected directly in this foreword.


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