Timor-Leste: East Timorís Foreign Policy Takes Shape


Dr Anthony L Smith

East Timor, as the worldís newest nation-state, has adapted to living in the world of states. While East Timor shares many characteristics of a South Pacific state, East Timorís leadership has consistently attempted to be involved in ASEAN. Managing relations with both Australia and Indonesia will be critical given the realities of geography. The US, Portugal and Japan will also be important partners, particularly in securing foreign aid.

When he was in exile, Josť Ramos Horta, East Timorís Foreign Minister, spoke of a future East Timor that would join the South Pacific Forum. Even prior to formal independence in 2002, East Timorís leadership, principally the future president, Xanana Gusm„o, and Ramos Horta, began to lobby for membership of ASEAN. Although ASEAN members have not accepted the idea, East Timor makes a representation to the ASEAN Annual Ministerís Meeting (AMM) each year. Perhaps in time East Timor will be given Observer Status like Papua New Guinea, but open criticism of Burmaís ruling military junta by the East Timorese leadership has ensured Burmaís rejection of any formal association at this point in time. Both Gusm„o and Ramos Horta have made statements in support of Aung San Sui Kyi, which have greatly annoyed the Burmese leadership. But East Timor has sought to soothe the feelings of its giant neighbour to the north. East Timor has been careful to stress its common interests in dealings with Indonesia, and Gusm„o in particular, has consistently praised Indonesiaís leadership in dealing with East Timor. East Timorís Foreign Minister has also agreed, like the rest of the international community, to respect Indonesiaís territorial integrity. Ramos Horta has stressed that East Timor will not support independence movements in Aceh and Papua, arguing that they do not have East Timorís separate legal status and do not have the same claim to statehood.

East Timorís support for the US counterattack in Afghanistan after September 11 may have also caused disappointment in the activist community overseas. Ramos Horta, a well-known Nobel Laureate, has used his position as foreign minister to pen articles in the aftermath of September 11. Apart from actively supporting the US action in Afghanistan, Ramos Horta wrote an opinion article in the New York Times ('War for Peace? It Worked in My Country', 25 February 2003) in which the foreign minister compared the liberation of East Timor to the anticipated US action against Iraq. A few days earlier, at the Non-Aligned Summit, he denounced opposition to the looming war in Iraq as 'illogical anti-Americanism'.

For a small nation of less than one million people, East Timor remains determined to play a modest role in world affairs. East Timor has joined the United Nations, and has considered joining a number of international and regional forums, including the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Its diplomatic corps will remain very small, with posts in key capitals like Canberra, Jakarta, Lisbon, Washington and, in time, in a handful of others. Gusm„o and Ramos Horta will allow East Timor to punch above its weight in terms of prestige, as their thoughts and comments are likely to get international media attention in a way that is not usually possible for small states. East Timorís foreign policy to date, while showing a degree of idealism, is largely grounded in national self-interest. East Timorís leaders, once exiles who were accused by Jakarta of being radical Marxists that would upset the regional order, have proved to be far more conservative in their foreign policy than many (supporters and detractors) would have imagined.

(The views expressed in this chapter are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, US Pacific Command, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.)

WATCHPOINT: Will East Timor be able to achieve a formal association with ASEAN in the near term?


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