Graeme Dobell and Matt Davies have both written engaging contributions respectively for and against Australia’s possible future membership of ASEAN. I’m grateful to Graeme for presenting so cogently the arguments for Australia’s seeking admission. But Matt reminds us of the difficulties involved—difficulties that Graeme’s most recent post on the topic seems to acknowledge, though he clearly still has more to say on the subject. Personally, I believe Australia should be trying to strengthen its relationships with key Southeast Asian states. But I’m unconvinced we have to join ASEAN to do that. We already have a close working relationship with ASEAN. And, I suspect our entreaties to Southeast Asian partners for closer strategic relationships are probably more credible if our motives are pure—that is, if we’re not simultaneously mendicants for admission to ASEAN.
As with most big questions related to strategic policy, it pays to come at this one from an understanding of Australian interests. What does Australia want from Southeast Asia? Good neighbours, certainly—and a shared sense of community is the foundation stone of a peaceful, interactive sub-region. We also want good trade relationships with regional states, a shared willingness to invest political and economic capital in addressing common challenges, and a stronger, more developed and more resilient sub-region. But there’s something else we want too, and it’s perhaps the most important of all our interests. We want a Southeast Asia that’s a positive contributor to a stable, liberal, prosperous Asian security order.
What do the adjectives stable, liberal and prosperous mean in that context? ‘Stable’ means we strive for an environment where guns are largely silent and where military budgets can be kept at small percentages of rapidly-growing GDPs. ‘Liberal’ means an order that’s inclusive and open and characterised by laws and rules; it doesn’t mean that all regional governments have to be democratically elected, though naturally Australia hopes that more will adopt that form over time. And ‘prosperous’ means an order in which all boats can rise, an environment in which development is a shared priority.
We’ve been the beneficiaries of such an order in the past and hope to continue our good strategic fortune in the future. But as US relative strategic weight in the region ebbs, and as we slide towards an Asia of skewed multipolarity, we’re hoping to see emerge a stable, liberal, prosperous strategic order that turns less on US centrality. Obviously the US is going to remain a strong player in the region for many years. But the US-centred order we’ve enjoyed in the past is buckling. So Australia’s looking for new sources of inputs to that order. Former Prime Minister Abbott’s interest in Japan, for example, seemed to derive from a belief that a regionally-engaged Japan would be an important contributor to such an order.
Still, Asia’s a big place. A more engaged Japan—even a more engaged India—wouldn’t offset a deficit of strategic leadership in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia needs to find its own local champions. We should aspire to work with those emerging players to help foster the notion that a sub-regional power core does exist in Southeast Asia, one that is a positive contributor to a stable, liberal, prosperous security order. We want an optimistic, future-oriented Southeast Asia. In the vernacular of the film Tomorrowland, we want a Southeast Asia that feeds the right wolf.
I doubt ASEAN can be the vehicle for achieving that. While it’s been a useful institution for building regional resilience, it’s typically been a responsibility-diffuser rather than a responsibility-enhancer in strategic terms. It was built for a different purpose—to strengthen intra-regional linkages in Southeast Asia. As such, it moves at the speed of its slowest members. It’s reluctant to adopt regional positions on contentious issues. It finds it hard to point the finger of blame even in relation to overt transgressions. And—especially noticeable in these transformational times—its members don’t share a single strategic vision of the regional future. As Donald Emmerson recently observed, if US–China strategic rivalry were to escalate, ASEAN could easily split into two camps—the China-defiers and the China-deferrers.
Our joining the organisation wouldn’t change those characteristics. So, horses for courses: we’ll probably get better mileage in relation to our current strategic ambitions to work with a more limited number of key players, like Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. After all, not all Southeast Asian countries want to be players in the bigger geopolitical matrix. Of those that do, not all share our goal. Let’s work with those who do.