Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Better to bring East Timor into the fold now

The young nation's application to join Asean should be approved despite the problems it may cause to the grouping's integration plan

Finally East Timor has officially applied to become the 11th member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) - in the words of Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa "as soon as possible". There are indeed many hurdles that this small and young democracy will have to cross, but the foreign minister's emphasis was on the time frame. Unfortunately at this stage, East Timor's membership could be a problematic one.

After East Timor gained independence in 2002 Asean was quick to guarantee the country's right to join the 10-member regional grouping at some point in the future.

But no member country was willing to discuss the time frame. Now, membership has suddenly become a major concern. There has been growing Chinese influence in East Timor since the outbreaks of violence in 2006. While other foreign nationals left the country at the time, Chinese traders and investors dug in and rapidly built up their presence and influence.

When Asean agreed to take in East Timor almost a decade ago, China was not a factor. The focus then was on the island nation's limited ability and its scarce economic resources. The concern was over how it would cope with normal Asean activities - more than 800 meetings and conferences per year - and the strategy for overall integration. With its limited human resources and English-language ability, East Timor could have been a drag on Asean's further development and its ambition to become one economic community by 2015. At the moment, full integration of Asean has its own problems due to the sluggishness among new members as well as Burma's internal political dynamics since the November election.

Most of the Asean members want to take East Timor's membership application more slowly. Singapore has been quite adamant that the prospective new member needs to prepare properly before it can join the bloc. To admit a new member, and a poor one at that, would be a long-term hazard to the grouping's road to integration. Past lessons show that after admission, there is no further commitment or incentive for new members to change or adopt new practices. Therefore, membership status will have to wait until after 2015 when Asean becomes fully integrated, even though this integration may be in name only.

Other Asean members, especially Indonesia, have a different take. China's influence in East Timor - literally in Indonesia's backyard - must be fully addressed in an urgent manner. Certainly, Jakarta thinks that the best way to manage China's influence in East Timor is to bring the country into the grouping immediately. It would be a purely political decision, not an economic one.

Indonesia's thinking here is problematic. No single country in Asean can place a limit on China's growing influence in the region. In 1995 Asean decided to admit Burma on a fast track as the most effective way to counter Beijing's southward moves. The approach was not productive as the Chinese influence in Burma continues to rise.
Thailand is among East Timor's strongest supporters but for a different reason altogether. Bangkok and Dili are very close due to shared values and economic cooperation. A young democratic member would be a big boost for Asean's democratic credentials. In addition, Thailand also has a good reputation from helping the East Timorese to stand on their own feet when they were struggling to build their nation.

In the months to come, Asean will have to decide if East Timor should be left alone for the next few years to engage mainly with China, or be admitted to the club, with all the envisaged problems and consequences that might bring.

When push comes to shove, the history of Asean shows that it is better to suffer internally from growing pains rather than face uncertainty caused by the unpredictability of an outside player. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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