Roberto Soares, East Timor’s former ambassador to Singapore and Brunei,
is the man leading the country’s charge toward a place at the Asean table
by Sacha Passi
Roberto Soares took his position as East Timor’s Secretary of State for Asean Affairs in August 2012. The nationalist, activist and survivor of the Santa Cruz massacre accepted the challenge of securing the tiny nation’s place as the 11th member of Asean with relish.
“Timor-Leste is invested in joining Asean for strategic geopolitical [reasons],” said Soares. “It is also guided by the Constitution of Timor-Leste, which states that we are to maintain special ties of friendship and cooperation with the countries of the region.”
Asean members remain staunchly divided on the matter of East Timor’s membership. In one corner, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have openly endorsed East Timor’s entry to Asean; in another corner, Singapore, Laos and Cambodia vetoed the move, stating that Southeast Asia’s youngest and poorest nation, is simply not ready for membership. The patronage of Indonesia, Asean’s largest nation, will no doubt work in East Timor’s favour, and Soares refutes the idea that Indonesia’s main motivation is clever diplomacy, as has been suggested by some observers.
“Timor-Leste and Indonesia have established an extraordinary, indeed unique, bilateral relation,” said Soares. “As a matter of fact, today, Timor-Leste and Indonesia are moving towards a new chapter in our relations. The peoples of Timor-Leste and Indonesia have come a long way in overcoming the sometimes painful chapter of our shared past [when Indonesia brutally occupied East Timor for a quarter of a century].”
East Timor’s oil and gas reserves, worth an estimated $30 billion, will go some way to strengthening its claims for Asean membership, although its limited industrial capacity has led to speculation that any future ability to become an active economic partner in the region will rely on leasing oil and gas reserves to Asean states. Much of Soares’ remit will be to assuage the fears of other nations that admitting East Timor will not hinder the bloc economically.
“Our country and our economy gains strength year after year with record double-digit growth,” said Soares. “We firmly believe that Timor-Leste will be an active contributor and a dynamic new member of Asean. We have so much to offer Asean: a dynamic economy, a growing market for inward investment, an educated workforce with the necessary skills to move the country forward and an abundance of mineral resources including oil and gas.
“Timor-Leste is very much at peace, and moving progressively towards national development in a stable manner, with an impressive economic growth rate, a more highly educated young population, and increasing prosperity and political stability.”
Indeed, according to Soares, most Asean nations have already begun investing in East Timor, and even those that haven’t are eyeing potential moves.
“Since the restoration of our independence in 2002, we have witnessed each of the Asean member countries supporting our nation- and state-building process,” said Soares. “The private sectors from Asean countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam are among the largest investors in the Timorese economy, and invest earnestly in our dynamic economy because of the excellent business opportunities to be found in Timor-Leste. Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar also express desires for future cooperation.”
Dennis Shoesmith, an associate professor of political science and East Timor scholar at Charles Darwin University in Australia, said the biggest concern is that Singapore and other opposing members would look at the young nation’s position too narrowly, failing to consider China’s increasing interest in the country. Furthermore, Asean observers have suggested that the best counterbalance to China’s growing influence in the country is to approve East Timor’s membership.
“If Timor-Leste is outside Asean, it becomes a blind spot in the middle of the association, which could develop as a problem for a whole range of things which Asean tries to collectively control,” Shoesmith said.
As it seeks to become an active member of the bloc, East Timor has spent recent years ticking off a number of requirements for accession, including establishing diplomatic relations with all Asean countries, supplying accredited ambassadorial representation to all Asean countries, acquiring full membership of the Asean Regional Forum, and forming its own National Secretariat of Asean.
“We feel [being granted Asean membership] is a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’,” said Soares. “The government is committed to socio-economic development that allocates a substantial budget for infrastructure, education, health, agriculture, defence and security.
“There are still many challenges ahead of us, but we believe that our Strategic Development Plan, which gives us a clear direction [to follow in our] nation-building, will transform Timor-Leste into a middle income country by 2030.”