Advice to Australia: ASEAN and Southeast Asia, same-same but different
13 Mar 2024|

Following last week’s by-all-accounts successful Australia-ASEAN summit in Melbourne, I offered some unsolicited advice for an ASEAN audience, on the differences between non-alignment and neutrality. In the same presumptuous vein, my recommendation to Australian readers is always to keep in mind the distinction between ASEAN and Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is a geographical term for the sub-region bordered by India to the west, China to the north, Australia to the south and Oceania to the east. ASEAN is a regional organisation, whose current membership coincides with the geographical definition of Southeast Asia, with the sole exception of Timor Leste, now on track to become its 11th member.

Put thus, the distinction sounds straightforward. And I admit to being repetitive here, as this was also the theme of my analysis in the lead-up to the first Australia-ASEAN summit six years ago. Then again, rinse-and-repeat is consistent with the ASEAN way.

The differences are worth thinking about seriously, however, since ASEAN’s internal weaknesses—most evident on Myanmar and the South China Sea—have deepened since 2018. Yet in the Australian debate ASEAN is still used interchangeably with Southeast Asia, as if it was a place or a destination. Landing this ideational grappling hook, in Australia and elsewhere, counts among ASEAN’s biggest unsung successes. As rhetorical overreach, it’s harmless. But as a basis for policy or analysis, it has the potential to cloud a clear-eyed perspective on our surrounding region.

‘Southeast Asia’ has its origins as a strategic term coined during World War II, when the subregion was a unified theatre of Allied military operations against imperial Japan. Ironically, it took a world war for Western powers to see Southeast Asia as a whole. Before the Japanese invaded, with the notable exception of Thailand which escaped colonialism as a buffer state wedged between British Malaya and French Indochina, the subregion was carved up between the European imperial powers and latterly the United States. While goods and people moved across these imperial frontiers, it was never an integral entity in a political sense. The subregion’s rich cultural, linguistic and religious diversity lent itself to a balkanised approach. For most of the colonial period, the inhabitants of Southeast Asia’s mountains and forests maintained a separate existence, as they always had. By contrast, the porosity of the littoral and riverine zones of Southeast Asia has always facilitated transnational connectivity, irrespective of where political boundaries are drawn.

Given its history and geography, it is not surprising that Southeast Asia’s contemporary political geography is such a varied tapestry.

This includes a city state (Singapore), a sultanate ruled directly by the monarch (Brunei), communist single-party polities (Vietnam and Laos), a junta (Myanmar), one democratic super-state (Indonesia), sizeable countries and democracies to varying extents (Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand) and a scattering of small states (Cambodia, Timor Leste, etc), each with its own distinct variations in governance and unique strategic personality.

One of ASEAN’s core rationales is to project unity across this political smorgasbord, like a thin diplomatic shroud intended to parry external interference and cover the subregion’s fissures and fault-lines. To do this, ASEAN must flatten Southeast Asia’s political and strategic contours as far as possible, including the schism between continental and maritime, which bisects several countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Such a defensive motivation is perfectly understandable in light of Southeast Asia’s penetrated history. So too, is the genuine desire of extra-regional countries to show their support for Southeast Asia’s unity by placing ASEAN at the centre of their diplomatic engagement. And not simply for engaging Southeast Asia, since ASEAN has grown diplomatic wings as the convenor for loftier multilateral gatherings, such as the East Asia Summit. This ambition to be the regional diplomatic hub is expressed through ASEAN’s self-styled ‘centrality’, which  dialogue partners, including Australia, routinely and deferentially reference in their public statements.

Never precisely defined, ASEAN’s attachment to centrality harbours expectations of exclusivity in the multilateral convening role. This helps to explain ASEAN members’ touchiness towards the Quad, as a major regional multilateral initiative that pointedly does not include ASEAN as a member. ASEAN’s sensitivity about the Quad’s make-up also reflects its even-handed desire to keep China within the big tent of regional multilateralism, consistent with a longstanding commitment to the principle of open and inclusive architecture. But ASEAN’s consistent motivation is the (presumed) collective insecurity of its members, and fear that Southeast Asia will again become an arena for major power competition and conflict. ASEAN automatically designs in its demands for assurances on this score as a feature of everything it does in the political and security domain. When external partners, including Australia, voice support for ASEAN centrality, this is the context they are buying into.

Whenever Australia dons its ASEAN virtual reality goggles, Southeast Asia’s strategic contours recede into the fuzzy background. That’s OK, as long as Canberra invests its energy and resources within Southeast Asia where there is greatest alignment with Australian interests. Fortunately, the attention devoted to bilateral engagement with the Philippines and Vietnam, on the sidelines of last week’s Australia-ASEAN summit in Melbourne suggests that Canberra is doing precisely that.

While in opposition, the Labor Party initially declared that ASEAN would have a special focus in its foreign policy. Labor later changed this to Southeast Asia and carried that commitment into government, including through the appointment of Nicholas Moore as Australia’s economic envoy. That was an encouraging indicator that the distinction between Southeast Asia and ASEAN was also understood at a political level.

That’s where it counts most because Australia most often encounters fuzziness in foreign policy around the vexed question of its identity. In Melbourne, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said ’Southeast Asia is where Australia’s future lies’. While the prime minister avoided conflating Southeast Asia with ASEAN, many commentators are less circumspect, inviting comparisons with the perceived imbalance of Australia’s close identification with the US alliance or more broadly ‘the Anglosphere’.

The possibility of Australia seeking membership of ASEAN only nags from the margins of the debate, but it has not been altogether banished because of the lingering identity question. ASEAN remains the vehicle of choice for Australians seeking ‘security in, not from’ the region, because it seems to offer a bridge to Asia that Australia’s international persona can straddle.

This is misguided. So is the notion that Australia should engage regional countries for their own sake. Australia’s diplomatic resources are finite, so should be concentrated on those countries that share common security and economic interests. Multilateral engagement with ASEAN has its place, but mainly at a symbolic level.

The distinction between ASEAN and its constituent parts matters strategically but also economically. Australia has placed a bet big with the creation of a $2 billion fund to spur Australian investment into Southeast Asia, focusing on clean energy and infrastructure. This initiative should be applauded for its transformative ambition and scale, especially if it modernises the paradigm of Australia’s economic engagement from aid giver to capital provider. But Australian public and private investors alike still face the challenge of unsentimentally disaggregating the ASEAN single market not just to identify latent opportunities but also fully realised protectionist competitors.

In the strategic domain, it would be deeply misguided to believe that ASEAN somehow possesses a secret sauce for co-existence with China. Even if it did, it would be unpalatable in an Australian context, given the fundamental differences in outlook and situation from Southeast Asia. Australia’s partnerships with the subregion, collectively and bilaterally, prosper when our dissimilarities work, not as a barrier, but as a fillip to cooperation. Vive la difference!