A Switzerland Model for Timor-Leste? Prospects of Differentiated Integration in ASEAN

By Truston Yu (Photo: VOA)

Nearly two decades have passed since Timor-Leste became Southeast Asia’s youngest country, their quest for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains in limbo. Could a model like Switzerland in the European Union (EU) be a feasible solution for Timor-Leste’s relationship with the ASEAN? This article examines the idea first proposed by veteran diplomat Barry Desker, looking into case examples in Europe and prospecting its application in Southeast Asia. The concept of “differentiated integration”, in particular, is of interest within this discussion.

It has been over four decades since Timor-Leste first expressed its intent in joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Much has happened in the years between: East Timor was annexed by Indonesia until it regained its independence 27 years later following a period of transitional UN administration; ASEAN membership doubled; the ASEAN Charter was drafted in 2007, and the ASEAN Community was launched in 2015. However, little progress has been made regarding Dili’s accession to the Southeast Asian bloc.

The ASEAN Charter’s Article 6 Admission of New Members outlines the criteria for an aspiring country to be admitted into the ASEAN. It is non-debatable that Timor-Leste has already fulfilled the first three; the final one that remains is criterion (d) Ability and willingness to carry out obligations of Membership.

Timor-Leste is Southeast Asia’s smallest economy, with a GDP of only one-tenth of Cambodia, the smallest economy in ASEAN. However, all members must contribute an equal amount to the ASEAN budget, and this would certainly be a bigger burden to this young country than it is to other neighbors in Southeast Asia. As former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong stated, ASEAN member states attend over a thousand meetings of various nature each year. Attendance itself is already a rather demanding task, not to mention that member states must share the workload of hosting ASEAN Summits and other events.

Ambassador Barry Desker, senior Singaporean diplomat and the Founding Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), proposed the idea of a “Switzerland model” for Timor-Leste in ASEAN. I had the opportunity of speaking with him personally at an academic conference in Singapore, July 2019. Desker envisioned a solution in which Timor-Leste could participate in ASEAN frameworks without having to comply with the rather high expectations membership entails.

Differentiated integration describes the phenomenon in which member states have varying levels of commitment and participation in different aspects of the organization. The official definition set out in the European Commission’s GLOSSARY: The reform of the European Union in 150 definitions is as follows:

Differentiated integration means a process of integration in which the Member States opt to move forward at different speeds and/or towards different objectives, in contrast to the notion of a monolithic bloc of States pursuing identical objectives at a single speed.

This definition of differentiated integration, however, does not include non-member states. They are addressed in Article 8 of the Treaty of the European Union:

The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.

There are differential treatments and expectations on member states and other countries with close relations. It is the state of “not completely within, not completely without” which Desker envisions would be the way forward for Timor-Leste’s inclusion into ASEAN.

There are variations of this pertaining to the European Union: The most well-known cases would be members of the European Free Trade Association like Switzerland and Norway; there are also microstates like Andorra and Monaco; finally, we have Central European Free Trade Agreement member states such as Romania which eventually left CEFTA and joined the EU, as well Serbia which is considered to be first in line as the next member to join EU.

ASEAN differs from the EU in the sense that it emphasizes the equality between member states. Unanimity is central to the ASEAN Way – everyone is equal in voting (and vetoing) rights. While the EU is accustomed to “tailor-made plans” designed to meet the needs and capacities of different countries, this would be a major hurdle for ASEAN.

Though Desker coined the idea of a “Switzerland model” as it is the most well-known example of a non-member state being highly integrated into the EU, Dili’s circumstances are more homologous to the CEFTA members. As the Balkan countries, Timor-Leste is the one lagging behind the regional average, and preparatory efforts for accession have focused on capacity building. Thus, the Timor-Leste model would actually be closer to a “Serbia model”.

In fact, elements of differentiated integration could already be seen in Southeast Asia, with Timor-Leste’s inclusion in the ASEAN Annual Meeting of Foreign Ministers (AMM) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). ASEAN may further include Timor-Leste in more multilateral meetings regarding various aspects of cooperation.

In the face of Timor-Leste’s long quest for ASEAN membership, there are three courses of action: immediate membership, indefinite rejection, and differentiated integration. Not only is a differentiated integration model ideal for Timor-Leste’s gradual inclusion into ASEAN, but the current mode of Timor-Leste’s involvement with the regional bloc is also already demonstrating elements of differentiated integration. Admittedly, the length of this article does not allow for a deeper examination of the ASEAN and EU’s complexity. There remain many more technicalities to be discussed under this topic, such as whether the model would be an intermediary or permanent, or which of the three ASEAN Community pillars Dili will be given access to first. Nevertheless, differentiated integration, in a broad sense, presents a new framework for understanding the possibilities for Timor-Leste in ASEAN, breaking the binary and the deadlock in the status quo.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN.

They could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

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