BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Timor Leste’s foreign minister said Brunei has “given assurance” it will support the country’s bid to join ASEAN, which the tiny nation hopes will happen sooner rather than later.

“I am very pleased to have Brunei by our side, they are very supportive and yesterday I got the assurance directly from His Majesty the Sultan,” Dionisio Babo Soares told The Scoop in an interview Thursday.

“So I think that it’s now time for Timor Leste to join ASEAN, so that is the message to the rest of the ASEAN countries.”

Soares is on a diplomatic swing to all 10 ASEAN member states, hoping to shore up support for the former Portuguese colony’s bid to join the regional bloc.

The quest for ASEAN membership has been the keystone of Timor Leste’s foreign policy since independence from Indonesian occupation in 2002. Its accession would mean access to the ASEAN free trade zone and free trade areas with China, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia.

But despite lodging a formal application back in 2011 — eight years have elapsed along with numerous feasibility studies — Timor Leste’s membership is still undecided.

Opponents to its accession often cite the huge development gap as the main justification to delay entry, as well as financial and human resource constraints.

“This time around we want to seek consultation and clarification, and we want to make sure whether there is willingness to receive Timor Leste as part of the family or not,” Soares said.

“I think from around eight countries I have traveled to around ASEAN, all have given very positive responses,” the minister said, adding that he will soon continue his tour to the Philippines and Singapore.

Timor Leste’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Dionisio Babo Soares, being interviewed by Timorese media at the Rizqun International Hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan on July 4, 2019. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Since Thailand took over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2019, Soares noted that a “fact-finding mission” has been formed to visit Timor Leste this September to determine its readiness to join the 10-member grouping.

When asked if he was optimistic that the outcome of the visit would lead to eventual ASEAN membership, Soares said: “The assessment will lead to an eventual pronouncement, I wouldn’t say decision.”

ASEAN members are expected to contribute equally to the association’s expenses, which was US$2 million per member in the 2016 budget. This, in addition to the demands on the diplomatic staff (ASEAN has over 1,000 meetings to attend annually), puts Timor Leste — a country of 1.3 million people still recovering from decades of conflict with Indonesia — in a disadvantaged position.

The minister said Timor Leste has fulfilled the minimum requirements for entry, including opening embassies in all ASEAN capitals.

“We have participated in all the meetings in which Timor Leste is invited to within the ASEAN framework, and by having embassies I think we will be more active in those specific meetings. I understand that ASEAN must have consensus, there are some reservations but we will make sure to fulfill it.”

Soares claimed the country is making progress in the economic arena, with its GDP per capita (US$2,300) surpassing ASEAN members such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Although rich in natural resources — with a US$15 billion sovereign wealth fund from oil and gas — Timor Leste still has bare infrastructure and is seeking foreign investment to build roads and airports to increase accessibility to the country.

“At the economic level we still have to work hard, but we have some prospects of foreign direct investment,” Soares said. “Hopefully there will be more people from Brunei, businessmen to come and invest, and we will have an investment law in place, that provides all the incentives and requirements needed.”

ASEAN membership would also provide the country access to funds for national development through programmes like the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, launched in 2000 to narrow the development gap between member states, which has greatly benefited newer members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.