After more than a decade of deliberations, ASEAN leaders agreed on 11 November 2022 in principle to admit Timor-Leste as the eleventh member of the regional organization and to grant Timor-Leste observer status to attend all ASEAN meetings. Timor-Leste has demonstrated positive developmental progress, and fact-finding missions across the three ASEAN Community pillars have returned generally optimistic results.
However, an assessment of Timor-Leste’s ability to fulfil its commitments and obligations reveals that the country will need to close the gap with the ten existing members on matters such as the ratification and implementation of legally binding agreements and derivative work plans. Creating enforcement mechanisms and finding ways to implement commitments at the local level will be important.
Timor-Leste has put in place institutional structures and implementing agencies for advancing cooperation with ASEAN. It is also moving towards harmonizing its laws with ASEAN instruments. However, its capacity remains in question due to a lack of substantive knowledge and technical expertise among government officials, as well as inadequate infrastructure, logistics and facilities for hosting ASEAN meetings.
Strengthening human capital will be a top priority for Timor-Leste. This includes not only enhancing its personnel’s knowledge and technical expertise on ASEAN processes and procedures but also skills such as English language proficiency and negotiation. Coordinated capacity-building assistance from ASEAN and dialogue partners will be important. These efforts must also be met with economic diversification and growth of its nascent private sector.
Apart from bridging gaps, ASEAN needs to grapple with its reservations that Timor-Leste’s economic limitations may slow down the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community. There are also concerns that Timor-Leste’s membership may entrench differences within the bloc, particularly with regard to geopolitical issues, and dilute the organization’s effectiveness or further complicate the consensus-based decision-making process.
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