There is absolutely no reason why the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should not admit Timor Leste as its newest member, after the nation formally submitted its application to join last week. After all, geography, more than anything else, was the reason why the regional organization brought in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in the late 1990s to encompass all 10 countries in the region.
Admittedly, looking back, one could argue that ASEAN expanded too fast too soon, when it was clear that, economically, the four new members were at different levels of development, leading to the impression that there were two ASEANs. But even with this gaping hole, ASEAN decided to forge ahead with the creation of a single ASEAN community based on three pillars — politics and security, the economy and social and cultural — through the adoption of the group’s charter.
Since Timor Leste faces even bigger challenges economically compared to the poorest ASEAN states, its admission may slow down the process of economic integration. After all, an organization can only move as fast as its slowest member. But since Timor Leste’s population is small, its impact on the pace of integration will probably be limited.
Timor Leste is not coming with empty hands. The new nation is actually more progressive regarding political freedom, human rights guarantees and governance. Indonesia, which has seen its efforts to ensure more guarantees of freedom and human rights to the organization often frustrated by other ASEAN members, will find Timor Leste a powerful ally.
It is significant that Timor Leste timed its membership application during Indonesia’s chairmanship, the country that formerly occupied the territory then called East Timor for 25 years until 1999. This confirms the commitment of Timor Leste’s leaders to look ahead rather than being beholden to the past. Timor Leste is far more ready for the “ASEAN ways” than most existing members, who are stuck in old rivalries and territorial disputes.
Since the creation of an ASEAN community is now the goal, the organization may as well admit the newest nation on the block to familiarize it with the various processes early on and perhaps even contributing a thing or two to the group. Let’s not delay Timor Leste’s admission any more than necessary.