Timor-Leste’s Foreign Policy: Securing State Identity in the Post-Independence Period

Selver B. Sahin


This paper examines some of the major ideational aspects of Timor-Leste’s foreign policy orientation in the post-independence period. Drawing upon the constructivist accounts of state behaviour, the paper situates Timorese leaders’ foreign policy decisions in the broader context of their search to position the fledging nation in the global political order. It argues that Timor-Leste’s insecure state identity has shaped its leaders’ foreign policy preferences in the post-independence period. This identity can be examined by separating it into two parts: the construction of spatial boundaries and the creation of a temporal “other”. The former is evidenced by the leadership’s rhetorical emphasis on the country’s Portuguese heritage and their prioritisation of ASEAN membership, both of which are closely related to the consolidation of the young nation’s political and cultural identity. The creation of a temporal other, as illustrated by the rise of political discourse emphasising sovereignty, reflects a wider transitional process that is embedded in the country’s transformation from colony to independent state under international supervision as well as the state’s transformation from “fragile” or “failing” to “stable”. A detailed analysis of the basic aspects of Timor-Leste’s insecurities as a constitutive element of its foreign policy becomes instrumental to understanding the country’s nation-state-building experience since its separation from Indonesia in 1999, as it enters a new phase of socio-political structuring following the withdrawal of the international security presence in 2012.

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