Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta seeks to improve trade ties with Cambodia

Gareth Johnson

Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta spoke about improving trade ties, his hopes on joining ASEAN, and several other issues at the start of his state visit answering questions from Cambodia Investment Review in Phnom Penh.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner who came to power earlier this year is leading a large delegation of government ministers, with further meetings planned with Prime Minister Hun Sen, addressing parliament, as well as the first-ever Timor-Leste Cambodia summit.

To read our interview with President Ramos-Horta click here.

Becoming the 11th member of ASEAN

The hottest topic of the day was if and when Timor-Leste would join ASEAN, with the President stating: “Becoming a member of ASEAN is a key goal for us. In other parts of the world regional blocks accept you simply for being in the region. We now feel we fulfill all of the relevant criteria and should therefore be allowed to join”. 

As for a timeframe for joining ASEAN? The President continued that he was confident that it would happen in 2023 when Indonesia chairs ASEAN. Despite fighting a bitter war for independence from Indonesia the two nations enjoy excellent diplomatic ties. Cambodia has also been a staunch ally in its bid to join the block.

To join ASEAN all member nations must agree to the new member, with many theorizing that Singapore may have been blocking their admittance. Timor-Leste has been criticized by some quarters for its close ties to China, a matter the President was keen to address stating: “We want to be friends and trade with everyone. We are close to both China and the United States, as well as countries such as Cuba”.

Improving trade ties between Timor-Leste and Cambodia

Another key part of the trip is developing more trade between the two countries, something that will be a big focus during the upcoming summit. 

Answering a question directly from Cambodia Investment Review about which sectors were ripe for inward investment President Ramos-Horta stated: “There are several areas where we would welcome inward investment, with one example being tourism. Timor-Leste boasts great diving and fishing among other incentives for people to visit”.

To read more about Timor-Leste keen to follow Cambodia’s lead in developing export industry click here.

Despite boasting enormous natural beauty and bio-diversity East Timor remains the least visited country in Southeast Asia and lacks the infrastructure for mass tourism.

One area there is hope for a breakthrough is a Memorandum of Understanding being signed by the two nations regarding aviation, with the President stating his desire for direct flights between the two countries, while acknowledging that such a route would need to be subsidized, at least in the short term. 

A potential free trade agreement

With regards to trade, the President stated his desire for a potential free trade agreement between the two countries telling the audience: “I am pro-free trade and feel it can be enormously b beneficial to developing countries”. 

Timor-Leste boasts huge reserves of oil and gas, which has led to the setting up of a sovereign wealth fund that finances things such as the nation’s universal health care scheme. 

Answering another question from Cambodia Investment Review the President also spoke of the opportunities in the Timorese exclave of Oecusse, where the government is planning to set up a special economic zone with the potential for it being a tax-free zone, as well as allowing casinos.  

Timorese exports to Cambodia reached a peak of $320,000 in 2019.

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