SINGAPORE – ASEAN’s Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn said it would be unlikely that Timor Leste, Southeast Asia’s youngest nation, would gain formal admission into ASEAN by the time the bloc holds its summit in Jakarta this September.

Leaders of ASEAN member states granted Timor Leste observer status last November — allowing it to to participate in all ASEAN meetings — and agreed in principle to admit the former Portuguese colony as its 11th member. However, it must fulfil a number of milestones set out in a “roadmap” before becoming a full member.

“It’s up to Timor Leste to get ready because in joining ASEAN there’s a lot of obligations,” Kao said in an interview on the sidelines of the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

“As an observer now, Timor Leste has no obligations. But as a full member, they need to make sure they have sufficient capacity, they need to familiarise themselves with the ASEAN structure and processes, and they need to have signed and ratified ASEAN agreements and treaties.”

The country would be the first new member of the regional grouping in more than two decades, since Cambodia was admitted in 1999.

As an ASEAN member, the island nation would have to attend 1,300 meetings a year, have the infrastructure to host summits, and contribute US$2.5 million per year to the group’s budget.

Timor Leste’s leaders have repeatedly said the country is ready to join the bloc, but have admitted it could take years before it can meet the targets set out in ASEAN’s “strict” roadmap to full membership.

Although ASEAN approved the roadmap at the most recent leaders’ meeting in May, the document has yet to be shared publicly by the bloc’s current chair, Indonesia.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue — Asia’s top security meeting — on June 4, Timor Leste President José Ramos-Horta said his government would invest in infrastructure and undertake policy reforms to ensure its membership “benefits not only our country but the region as a whole”.

Many issues, including concerns that its weak economy and underdeveloped human resources would be a burden to ASEAN, have plagued Timor Leste’s membership application.

Timor Leste President José Ramos-Horta speaks during a plenary session of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 4, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of IISS

Acknowledging those concerns, Ramos-Horta said his country now had 16 universities compared to one in 2002, and was working with other ASEAN countries and international partners to build up its human resource capacity.

“Our best contribution to ASEAN is we should not be a burden and a headache for ASEAN,” he said. “So we keep the peace in our own country, we develop as much as we can…We don’t want to be another catastrophe like Myanmar.”

Timor Leste was officially recognised by the United Nations in 2002, after its people voted for independence from Indonesia’s brutal 25-year occupation.
The resource-rich country of 1.3 million people immediately began the process of accession to ASEAN, but only formally applied for membership in 2011.