East Timor Belongs in Asean
The country has made great strides fighting corruption and building democracy.By CHRISTIAN WHITON
Oct. 27, 2014 1:12 p.m. ET
In a year when the free world has faced growing threats on multiple fronts, one former problem geography actually sparks hope: East Timor. Although considered a backwater to all but the few analysts who track Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the prospects of this would-be member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could be brighter than many naysayers suggestand matter more than they think. This should make the country’s prompt admission in Asean a no-brainer.
Allowing Dili to join has been on Asean’s agenda for more than a decade. Delay was understandable amid violence and instability, but now East Timor is more democratic and politically stable than several longtime Asean members. Accession would also advance Asean’s role as a mechanism for collaborationespecially among smaller states at risk of being overwhelmed by China. East Timor can benefit from this dynamic while also making its own contribution.
The doubters have some good points. For a period the country was the most unstable nation in the Pacific. Violence fanned by Indonesia swept the country as it moved toward independence in 1999, prompting Australia and other countries to intervene. The Timorese government in Dili requested Australian-led intervention again in 2006 when internal violence erupted. Much of the country’s infrastructure lay in ruins.
Pessimists also point to questionable government spending, a voluntary leadership transition that now seems off track, and corruption and cronyism. Transparency International places East Timor at an undesirable 119th out of 177 in its primary ranking of countries based on perceptions of corruption. The country also has poor infrastructure and a 60% literacy rate.
But there is good news, especially given major current and future gas production in the Timor Sea. Seeking to avoid the cycle of corruption and economic stagnation that has beset many poor countries with big energy assets, Dili established a Norwegian-style Petroleum Fund in 2005. This step ensures that some royalties are kept for future generations. In its first six years the fund grew to $8 billion. By June of this year it had reached $16.6 billion.
Despite the history of corruption and instability, East Timor now possesses credible institutions of law and democracy. When Dili’s tax agency sought a higher assessment from ConocoPhillips, the country’s largest foreign operator, a local court actually ruled against the governmentan unheard of outcome in many petro-states. Unfortunately, the government has since blamed and fired foreign legal advisors to the judicial system, but the original precedent now remains for various disputes in international arbitration. On the positive side, when the government passed a law earlier this year that restricted the press, the nation’s Court of Appeal struck it down as unconstitutional. Furthermore, current and former Western officials who have dealt with East Timor’s president and prime minister hold both in high regard for their stewardshipand their magnanimous rapprochement with former-occupier Indonesia.
Some analysts have warned that gas production off East Timor may soon decline, leaving the country with mounting problems. But a major new field, Greater Sunrise, is expected to enter production this decade. The country’s agribusiness, especially coffee exports, is also prime for growth. Tourism is slowly developing, as memories of unrest fade and the country, which uses the U.S. dollar, becomes easier for travelers to reach.
The success of East Timor is not purely an academic or humanitarian concern. There is no part of Asia or the Pacific that the Chinese government would not like to dominate, and East Timor is no exception. The country sits across a narrow sea from Darwin, Australia, which hosts an increasing U.S. military presence to counter China’s growing military capabilities and aggression. Beijing would no doubt like to use East Timor as a base and listening post if it could. In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted East Timor’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, for an official visit, and they agreed to expandedif vaguecooperation.
East Timor is also geo-strategically important. The Pacific comes down to a few crucial chokepoints near Singapore, with the vast majority of Middle Eastern petroleum and other global trade with East Asia and the West Coast of North America passing through narrow straits like Malacca, Lombok and Sunda. All would be contested in the early stages of a conflict involving China, pushing trade farther south through the Timor Sea and nearby waters. This geographic reality is why major early battles in the Pacific War occurred in New Guinea, Guadalcanal and the Coral Sea.
Put simply, free nations should recognize a good thing when they see it. Those who favor a civilized world order should want an East Timor that is improving and moving closer to the free world instead of China. Admitting Dili into Asean is a crucial step in this processone that would give Timorese reformers an additional lever to use in their efforts to reduce corruption. It would also reward a small country that is playing a tough hand well.
Mr. Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.” He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration.