50 years of ASEAN: Australian membership
3 Jul 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Quincie Gaile Delfin.

The evolution of Australia’s thinking about ASEAN has gathered enough pace that it’s now possible to propose a new Oz passion and purpose. Instead of constant pledges of engagement and partnership, Australia’s future in Southeast Asia lies in joining ASEAN.

In musing about the headaches confronting ‘our region’, Malcolm Turnbull certainly thinks ASEAN is part of the answer. Australia’s interest is closer strategic alignment with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and ever greater economic integration—the ten-nation grouping now represents about 15% of total trade. ASEAN is our third largest trading partner, after China and the European Union.

Next March, with Sydney Harbour as the glittering setting, Australia has the chance to get ambitious about its place in ‘our region’, as the Prime Minister hosts the Australia–ASEAN summit, the first on Oz soil. The summit is the moment to launch the long conversation about Australia joining ASEAN.

The imminent DFAT Foreign Policy White Paper will have lots of lovely language about ever-closer engagement with all aspects of the ASEAN Community. The Sydney summit can give that engagement an aim and a timeline. Australia should reach for membership of the Community in 2024, the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming the first ASEAN dialogue partner.

If Australia reaches for it, New Zealand will want in as well. So this would be a joint Oz-Kiwi quest. When this column started talking about Oz-Kiwi membership of ASEAN, I suggested reaching a half-in point in 2024—observer status—as the entry point for eventual full membership.

Some ASEAN oracles think this far too cautious. Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani says observer status is no big deal—the real challenge Australia faces is a ‘fundamental change in mindset’. Mahbubani thinks hard geopolitics will trump Oz cultural identity and an Australian turn to ASEAN is inevitable. A former Secretary-General of ASEAN, Ong Keng Yong, says rather than pursing the observer route, a more elegant solution is to create a new category of partner/member for Australia and New Zealand. Such a new form of ASEAN membership would side-step the geographic veto (aren’t in Southeast Asia, can’t be part of ASEAN).

The imprecision about the final form makes this fine summit fodder. Australia and ASEAN pledge to seek new levels of togetherness then spend the next seven years working out how to do it. Seven years makes it close enough to be real, but far enough into the future for leaders to leave the detail for later. Here’s the definition of a summit announcement: symbolism now, substance later.

Turnbull declares the Sydney summit an ‘historic and unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Australia’s strategic partnership with ASEAN and deliver tangible economic and security benefits to Australia’. Time, then, to make history. In the way of such gatherings of the great, leaders can do good by gathering together existing trends and giving them a big shove-along.

Coming just after ASEAN’s 50th birthday, the Sydney summit will drip with symbolism. And it’ll have the chance to build substance—not least because there’s lots that Australia and ASEAN agree on. And plenty of fears they share.

Australia and ASEAN are in heartfelt agreement that they must never have to choose between China and the US. Yet the size of the geo-economic prizes and the pressure of the geo-political puzzles keep building. In claiming no need to choose—in the frantic denial that it’s even an issue—ASEAN and Oz confront a version of Trotsky’s maxim: ‘You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you’.

Summits seldom solve anything. But sitting with a chilly, clear view at the top of the mountain, leaders can agree interests, align national approaches and even sketch ways forward. Summits get to first base when they do no harm. They get towards the second and third levels of achievement if they actually tackle the big topics. Communiqués are always an attempt to sketch the future, as much as a record of compromises paraded as agreement.

In Sydney, the Oz-ASEAN Business Summit can do—well, business—and the Counter-Terrorism Conference will confront the nightmare gripping polities everywhere. Up the metaphorical mountain, the leaders at their dual summit-retreat can have a meeting of minds that ranges over Asia’s tectonic strategic trends, the meaning of ASEAN’s Community, and what Australia (plus New Zealand) could bring to Southeast Asia’s future.

The mountaintop agenda was offered in the final pages of Turnbull’s Shangri-La speech in Singapore. After kicking China with shrill vigour and dancing carefully around Donald Trump’s Hunger Games realpolitik, Turnbull examined the import of his declaration: ‘In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests.’

The middle powers will have to do it instead, as Turnbull offered an ASEAN-flavoured vision of a region where the habits of cooperation and transparent rules trump force and coercion. Any Oz PM playing back to ASEAN its habits of mind about finding regional solutions to regional problems is going to get lots in return. In marking ASEAN’s 50th birthday, Turnbull lauded the Association’s past strategic success as a formula for the future:

‘We support a strong, united ASEAN that continues to convene and strengthen organisations such as the East Asia Summit, the region’s only leaders-led forum that can help manage the region’s strategic risks. And we support an ASEAN that remains committed to liberal economic values.’

Do more than support. Join. At the Sydney summit, Australia has the chance to move beyond engagement to commitment.